Quality-checking sources is something we start to learn in secondary school or undergrad – just ask my students who felt my wrath when they cited Wikipedia (or what’s worse: when they used it and didn’t cite it).
But at postgrad level, we need to be much more careful about what we cite and what we won’t. These are some of the questions I ask myself as I evaluate a source. Feel free to add your own techniques in the comments.
Is this source influential?
If a source has been influential upon other scholars, it will have been cited a lot, right? That’s a no-brainer. So generally, a paper with a high citation count is a paper that has been highly impactful. There are a number of ways to check how many citations a paper has had – most commonly, via Web of Science or Google Scholar.
However, there are a couple of caveats with this citations-equals-impact formula. Some papers may have a low citation count simply because they’re recent, and there hasn’t been time for them to be widely cited yet. More worryingly, some papers may have a high citation count because they’re controversial. Andrew Wakefield’s infamous paper linking vaccines to autism has a whopping 2314 citations according to Google Scholar. It’s also been retracted and widely discredited as fraudulent by the scientific community, so you wouldn’t want to cite it uncritically just because it seemed influential.
Is this source peer-reviewed?
We all know that peer-reviewed sources are considered more robust than non-refereed sources – if you’ve written a paper, you’ll know how tough reviewers can be. But how do you find out whether a paper is peer-reviewed? That depends on the journal. If you are physically holding a copy of the journal you’re citing from, it’s easy to check the “Notes for Contributors” section to find details of the journal’s peer review process. If you want to check a journal’s peer review status online, search it at Ulrich’s Web, where peer-reviewed journals come up with a little “refereed” icon. Take care though – even peer-reviewed journals contain content that isn’t refereed, such as book reviews, letters to the editor, and editorials.
Is this source current?
As Julia Hallas wrote recently on Thesislink, there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there on the timeframe in which a source is “valid” to cite. Bottom line: recent sources tend to be viewed as more authoritative than older sources, particularly in the sciences. But there are a ton of exceptions. Seminal papers tend not to “age” like most papers. Classical works often don’t fall out of fashion at all. Plus, in some cases, you might want to cite an older study to demonstrate a change in research methods or findings. Most importantly, there are vastly different standards for the acceptable age of cited papers in different disciplines. In a philosophy or classics thesis, many of your sources could be hundreds or thousands of years old.
Is this source acceptable in my field? (If not, can I defend using it?)
This is a difficult one. Some big-name scholars, particularly in fields that involve a lot of subjective judgement, can be deeply divisive. You can never quite tell which scholars your supervisor and examiners will agree or disagree with. Particularly in fields that go through fashions, a theorist that was once highly influential may now be considered déclassé. This is incredibly tricky territory, because when you’re beginning your research career, it’s hard to know who’s respected and who’s on the out. For example, I once made extensive use of the work of a philosopher who my supervisor considered a hack. It didn’t stop me using his work; but I got a lot of practice defending my choice. It’s all good preparation for the oral.
Add your tips for evaluating a source in the comments.