Being source-critical means being able to evaluate the credibility of the information you have in front of you. The most important tool in this evaluation process is actually your own knowledge.
Does the new information seem probable to you? Have you read something similar before that also seemed credible? Besides your own knowledge here are some different aspects you can consider in order to make a structured source-critical assessment:
- Is the information too old? Age is a factor. Where the line is drawn depends on the subject since different scientific fields move at different pace.
- Does the text refer to a number of different references?
- Is there a variety of authors being referred to or is it all circular reasoning? Can you find another, unrelated, study where the information is confirmed?
- Does it seem to be a real source? Can you track / contact authors? What are their affiliations?
- Can the author be expected to have performed what this claims? Training? Background?
- What underlying / underlying reasons are there for presenting the information as presented? Could there be bias?
- Why did this study turn up in my search?
As a student you take part in academic communication both as a reader and as a writer. To be able to produce academic information you need to learn to independently search for, evaluate and use different kinds of information.
Academic information is written by researchers that presents new finding mainly addressed to other researchers within the same subject area. Theoretical points, method and results are often presented according to a certain structure in a neutral way using a terminology specific for that subject area. In scientific texts you also find references to other sources which mark the border between other researcher’s results and yours.
Within natural science and technology researchers usually publish their latest findings as articles in scholarly journals. All manuscripts that are sent to the journal are reviewed by the journals editors. Many scholarly journals use peer review which means that the manuscripts are anonymously reviewed by external researchers within the subject area. Read more about peer review at Umeå University Library.
Popular science article
Popular scientific information is mainly addressed to readers that are not experts within a specific subject area. These texts use a simpler language and usually don’t present as detailed information as scholarly articles. They refer to previous research but don’t necessarily cite other sources. New Scientist is an example of a popular science journal.
Commercial information like product catalogues or trade magazines might be published by companies who like to information customers about new or updated products. This kind of information could be biased since the information is addressed to potential customers. Within Engineering Science or Architecture it might be useful to take part of information about different products characteristics and qualities to be able to make a construction as qualified as possible.
Doctoral studies ends with the doctoral student’s public defense of the doctoral thesis. Within Natural Science it is most common to publish compilation theses meaning that the thesis consists of previously published scholarly articles. Within the Social Sciences and Science of Humanities most doctoral theses are published as monographies (books).
Conference paper and report
Research that is presented during a conference is often published as an abstract or scholarly article in a conference publication. Sometimes the articles are reviewed. A report usually presents findings from a project that has been performed by for example government agencies, companies or organizations.