Tips for Students: How to Critically Evaluate Academic Sources

For any student writing a research paper, it’s important to know how to critically evaluate academic sources to ensure you are getting accurate information. Here are Tutor Doctor’s tips to help streamline the process!

1. Check the website address. This tip has been recommended to students for decades – probably as long as the internet has been used by students – and for good reason! So here it is: in many cases, a source is more likely to be valid if it ends with one of the following URL suffixes:

  • https://www.*****.edu
  • https://www.*****.gov
  • https://www.*****.org

Now this certainly isn’t to say that all .com and .net resources are unreliable, but this is a good rule of thumb. Websites with these domain suffixes (.edu, .gov, .org) are all going to have a better chance of being academically reviewed as these specialized domains are harder to acquire.

2. Search scholarly databases. A good way to ensure you are only getting academic sources is to use a search engine that only returns scholarly articles – JSTOR and Google Scholar are two of the most popular tools. Your school or university may also have access to a virtual library that contains a greater selection of scholarly articles. With these types of articles, you are almost guaranteed that they are valid sources – scholarly articles need to be peer-reviewed and approved, and they often have multiple authors. If the article has something called a DOI (digital object identifier), it is almost certainly a scholarly article.

3. Pay attention to article details. In the last few years there’s been a growing problem with online articles falsely appearing to be legitimate sources. Often times these articles appear in otherwise trusted periodicals – so what’s the deal? Look for buzzwords in the article. If you see anything that says “sponsored” you should assume the article is biased – this is a new trick for advertisers to disguise marketing attempts as credible periodicals. Also, be on the lookout for authors cited as “contributors” – these are not official employees of the periodical and should be considered editorial (opinion) based resources – not academic. There are some exceptions (say, if the contributor is a recognized expert in their field), but you should always be wary when it comes to these types of articles.

4. Look up the author. Dig a little deeper on the writer themselves. Do they have any conflicts of interest? Have they been cited by other authors in their field? Have they been involved in any controversies surrounding their work? Credibility is incredibly important in an academic research paper, so if you aren’t using an article in a scholarly database it’s always a good idea to do a little background check on the author.

5. Check for references. Does the article itself have references? If it doesn’t, that’s a pretty good indicator that it is not a valid source. Even Wikipedia offers references and citations for every article – and while Wikipedia entries themselves are not considered scholarly articles, the references at the bottom of each page often point to literature that is. If you find an article that contains no references whatsoever, definitely be skeptical of its academic validity.