Chapter Nine: Evaluating Scholarly Resources

Finding Trustworthy Resources

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This page addresses several questions: How do we know which sources to trust? What sources will our audience find most relevant and significant? How important is currency (not money, but information that is the most recent)? Should we be concerned about whether a source is “biased”? How do we avoid repeating misinformation to our audience? At the heart of these questions is the issue of “authority,” which is the trust we grant to reliable sources of information.

Authority is Constructed and Contextual

Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required.[1]

What makes a useful resource will differ by discipline and the scope of your project. For example, currency, meaning the work was published more recently, is extremely important in the sciences but not always so in the humanities where scholars routinely work with classic texts. In the digital humanities, and in any field that deals with digital media, things will develop faster and, therefore, currency will be more relevant.

As you conduct your literature review, you should be aware of criteria such as currency, relevance, authority, and purpose, but do so with what the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) calls an “attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought.” Effective researchers “understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations.”

For a more complete overview of constructing authority, see the ACRL Framework . In the meantime, here are some criteria for evaluating the credibility of scholarly resources. Most of these focus on journals but can be applied to any type of academic resource.

Aristotle’s Ethos

Aristotle’s term ethos evaluates expertise in these terms. Ethos has an ethical dimension and is separate from self-confidence or popularity since it is possible to be self-confident and popular without any ethical grounding. We can get a sense of whether an authority is ethical by investigating how others have evaluated their work. Over time, scholars get a reputation from other scholars who evaluate their knowledge, trustworthiness, and disinterestedness.

Aristotle was suspicious of people who argued for money. Cynically promoting views you don’t agree with in order to profit personally constitutes a form of malpractice. Honest self-advocacy is fine, however. For instance, disabled scholars who advocate for better transportation for people with disabilities do not present ethical problems with their advocacy.

A Note about Bias

We routinely hear that “bias” is bad; therefore, the reasoning goes, if we find a work of scholarship that shows “bias,” we should reject it. But bias itself is not a problem; unwarranted bias is. If there is a debate about whether the moon is made of cheese or rock, we might hear that both sides of the debate are biased. But the bias of one side is warranted and the bias of the other side is not. As scholars, we are called upon to act as referees, and it is up to us to take sides when necessary. In this example, claiming that both sides are right, or that the truth is in the middle, is a dereliction of our duty as scholars. It is warranted to be biased against the bad behavior or false claims of scholars, but it is not warranted to be biased against good evidence and arguments nor to be biased against scholars based on their race, gender, or other identity categories. If we notice unwarranted bias in the work of other scholars, we have an obligation to point it out in our work.

  1. Association of College and Research Libraries. "Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education." 2016.


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Strategies for Conducting Literary Research Copyright © 2021 by Barry Mauer & John Venecek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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