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Evaluating Books and Periodicals

Scope: The purpose of this guide is to provide and explain basic criteria used in the evaluation of books and journals for research. The companion guide Evaluating Web Sites addresses information found on the Web.

Table of Contents


Initial evaluation (from database record)

The process of evaluation should begin as soon as a potential source is located in a library catalog or periodical database. The goal of this initial examination is to decide whether a source meets some basic requirements: it is written by someone who has knowledge of this subject, is sufficiently current for that topic, and satisfies your requirements concerning scholarship and depth. Begin with the following elements:


Author

Consider the authority of the source and what qualifications the author has to write on this subject.

  • What education and experience does he or she possess?
  • Is the author affiliated with a reputable organization or institution?
  • Is this author considered an expert in this field?
  • Have they published other materials on this subject?

Locating other books by an author: If the author's name is hyperlinked in the database, click on that link to see if there are any other books by your author in that database. [Note: This will not be an exhaustive search (since it only links to the contents of that database) but it may yield some initial information.] For a more thorough search of an author's publications, try these databases available through Research Port:

Biographies: Biographies may be useful for learning about an author's background and qualifications. This database (available through Research Port) can help you to locate biographies:

The subject guide Biographical Information Sources suggests many more resources for finding biographies.

Publication date

Currency is more important in some disciplines than others. For example, in some areas of history, a source which is 10 years old may be perfectly acceptable, while in a rapidly-changing area of scientific inquiry, a few months could be outdated. Ask yourself:

  • If your topic is current, is this source recent enough to be of use?

Very current topics may necessitate the use of periodicals, such as journals, magazines, or newspapers, rather than books, which have a much longer publication cycle.

Intended audience

Assumptions can be made about the depth of analysis based on the intended audience. Once you have the item in hand, you will be able to investigate further.

Books

Different types of publishers produce different kinds of materials for different audiences. For example, trade publishers produce materials aimed at a general consumer which may not address an issue in sufficient depth for your purposes, while scholarly/professional publishers and university presses, which publish materials aimed at the scholar or specialist, may contain more sophisticated research methodologies and analysis. Certain publishers also confine themselves to certain subjects or disciplines and will become known for materials in those areas. See the following site for more information:

Periodicals

What type of periodical is it: popular/consumer, trade, or scholarly/academic? Knowing which type of periodical the publication is suggests what audience it is intended for and therefore the level of analysis and expertise expected of the contributors.

For information on the differences between types of periodicals, see these guides:

Other indicators

What other information is available in the database record?

  • The Notes field in a library catalog may indicate that the source contains a bibliography (expected of a scholarly source) and/or an index.
  • The Contents field may list the chapter titles.
  • The Description field may indicate the length of the work, which can provide a sense of its depth (e.g., if it is very short or very long).
  • If the catalog or database is subject indexed, examine the headings in the Subject field for relevancy and applicability to your research need.

Content analysis (once you have the item in hand)

Once you have decided that a source meets your basic requirements and you have the item in hand, it's time to do a more in-depth evaluation.


Coverage

What coverage of the topic does the source provide? Will this source contribute to your knowledge of the subject? Does it just touch on it, or is it a comprehensive treatment?

Books

  • Examine the table of contents, the index, and the introduction to see what topics the source covers and the approach taken.

Periodicals

  • For articles, examine the abstract,the conclusion, and skim the article subheadings.

Purpose

Considering why a source was written will assist you in placing the ideas in context and lead you towards identifying any bias it may contain. Is the intent to:

  • Present an overview?
  • Entertain?
  • Persuade?
  • Advertise or sell something?
  • Instruct?
  • Inform?

For books, an examination of the preface or introduction may help to identify the purpose.

For articles, examine the abstract, the conclusion, and skim the article's subheadings.

Audience

Audience was examined above by looking at the publisher or type of periodical. Once you have the source in hand, you can conduct a deeper examination.

What audience is the source aimed at? Is it written for the general public, academics or scholars, or working professionals? How can you tell?

  • Look at the language used. Is it technical and complex? If so, it may be written for a scholarly or academic audience.
  • Examine the charts, graphs, illustrations, and photographs. How complex are they?
  • If it's a periodical, look at the advertisements. Who are the advertisements targeting, and what is their content?

Objectivity

It is important to determine whether a source presents a balanced perspective.

Many sources will make an argument for one position over another. However, the source should accurately describe and address other positions, arguing against them in a reasonable, logical fashion, avoiding the use of outlandish techniques for evaluating data or discounting opposing ideas.

  • Is the author's point of view presented as the only one? Are other viewpoints addressed in an impartial way?
  • What evidence is used to support the argument, where does it come from, and is it credible?
  • Is the reasoning sound or are faulty reasoning techniques used? Is there a logical sequence to the argument or presentation of information?
  • Does the author identify incongruent results in his or her own research, suggesting areas for further study? Impartial approaches often critique their own work knowing that others may take up the research and advance knowledge in that area.
  • Identify the tone (the style or manner in which the author expresses his or her ideas). Is the language emotionally charged or inflammatory? Scholarly writers strive to use neutral language.
  • Is the publisher known for having an ideological slant? For periodicals, consult Magazines for Libraries which examines ideological slants for many periodicals.

Accuracy

It is ethical practice in scholarly circles to cite your sources. Any failure to do so should raise some serious questions about the credibility of a source.

  • Examine the origin of the evidence presented by examining the footnotes, works cited list, reference list or bibliography with a critical eye, employing the techniques used in your initial evaluation above.

Consensus

Examining what reviewers say about a source can yield insight and perspective.

Books

Keep in mind that there may be a significant delay between the publication of a book and the appearance of a review, and that book reviews need to be examined with a critical eye as well. Ideally, you want to see the following elements in a book review:

  • A brief summary of the content and conclusions
  • A discussion of the strengths and weaknesses
  • An evaluation of the significance of the work in relation to others in the field

Annotated bibliographies can be useful in putting a source into perspective. Although some are purely descriptive, many contain critical analysis as well. To find annotated bibliographies in your discipline, add the keyword "bibliography" to your catalog search. For more information on annotated bibliographies, see Preparing an Annotated Bibliography.

Periodicals

There is no equivalent to book reviews for periodical articles. Authors tend to appraise the work of others in subsequent articles, so one strategy is to look up an article in a citation index. This type of database tracks relationships between articles so you can see who cited an article, find that article, and examine the context in which the original article was cited. Be cautious about judging an article favorably by the number of times it has been cited; a high number may be an indication of virtue or folly (people may also cite an article when they are arguing against its premises).

Citation databases include:

If the article is in a peer-reviewed or refereed journal, this indicates that the article has already been subjected to critical evaluation (to a certain degree) by others in the field. Identifying whether a periodical is peer-reviewed is a good first step. This guide can help:

Annual reviews are discipline specific publications (issued once a year) which contain articles published in the previous year which have been judged as being significant contributions to a field. Look these up in the catalog under Annual Review of...[subject].

Evaluating books: A checklist

To make sure you are on the right track while evaluating potential book sources, we have provided a checklist for you to follow.