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WHSL Introduction to Research in the Biomedical Sciences: 6. Evaluate your Findings

Helpful information for undertaking the research process in the biomedical sciences

Critical Analysis of Information Sources

Learning how to determine the relevance and authority of a given resource for your research is one of the core skills of the research process. 

Begin by evaluating a physical information source (a book or an article for instance) even before you have the physical item in hand. Appraise a source by first examining the bibliographic citation. The bibliographic citation is the written description of a book, journal article, or some other published material that appears in a catalogue or database index. Bibliographic citations characteristically have three main components: author, title, and publication information. These components can help you determine the usefulness of this source for your paper. In the same way, you can appraise a Web site by examining the domain name of the URL and the home page carefully.

With kind permission this content is based on original material created by Olin Library Reference, Research & Learning Services, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY, USA. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-non-Commercial-Share-Alike 2.5 License

How to Appraise Information Sources

INITIAL APPRAISAL

Author

  1. What are the author's credentials--institutional affiliation (where s/he works), educational background, past publications, or experience? Is the book or article written on a topic in the author's area of expertise?  Use the biographical information located in the publication itself to help determine the author's affiliation and credentials. Typing the author's name in inverted commas into Google, followed by who's who SA  (eg. "Martin Veller" who's who SA) should help find bibliographical information about South Africans; use similar Who's Who products for international authors. 
  2. Has your lecturermentioned this author? Have you seen the author's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? Respected authors are cited frequently by other scholars. For this reason, always note those names that appear in many different sources.
  3. Is the author associated with a reputable institution or organization? What are the basic values or goals of the organization or institution?

Date of Publication

  1. When was the source published? This date is often located on the title page below the name of the publisher. If it is not there, look for the copyright date on the reverse of the title page (verso). On Web pages, the date of the last revision is usually at the bottom of the home page, sometimes on every page.
  2. Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic? Topic areas of continuing and rapid development, such as the biomedical sciences, demand more current information, whereas topics in the humanities often require material that was written many years ago. At the other extreme, some news sources on the Web now note the hour and minute that articles are posted on their site.

Edition or Revision

  1. Is this a first edition of this publication or not? Further editions indicate a source has been revised and updated to reflect changes in knowledge, and/or include omissions. Also, many printings or editions may indicate that the work has become a standard source in the area and is reliable. If you are using a Web source, do the pages indicate revision dates?

Publisher

  1. Note the publisher. If the source is published by a university press, or a press renowned for quality publication in the biomedical sciences, it is likely to be scholarly. Although the fact that the publisher is reputable does not necessarily guarantee quality, it does show that the publisher has taken care to ensure that it publishes content that will be reliable, otherwise the publisher's reputation will be tarnished in an academic environment.

Title of Journal

  1. Is this a scholarly or a popular journal (magazine)? This distinction is important because it indicates different levels of complexity in conveying ideas. So while Longevity is a popular magazine dealing with health and aging, it will have content that is more suited to the lay person in this field, as oppposed to the Journal of Gerontology and Geriatrics, which is aimed at a more scholarly specialist audience. 
  2. If you need help in determining the type of journal, see the icon type that is often shown in the database or catalogue you are searching. For example, CINAHL shows full text scholarly articles as "Acadmic Journal" (see the CINAHL tutorial). PubMed does not index popular magazine content, so if you use this database to find biomedical information, you are assured that you will find only scholarly articles. 
With kind permission this content is based on original material created by Olin Library Reference, Research & Learning Services, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY, USA. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-non-Commercial-Share-Alike 2.5 License

How to Appraise Information Content

CONTENT ANALYSIS

Body of the Source

  1. Having made an initial appraisal, you should now examine the body of the source. Read the preface to determine the author's intentions for the book. Scan the table of contents and the index to get a broad overview of the material it covers. Note whether bibliographies are included. Read the chapters that specifically address your topic. Scanning the table of contents of a journal issue is also useful. As with books, the presence and quality of a bibliography at the end of the article may reflect the care with which the authors have prepared their work.

Intended Audience

  1. What type of audience is the author addressing? Is the publication aimed at a specialised or a general audience? Is this source too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your needs?

Objective Reasoning

  1. Is the information covered fact, opinion, or propaganda? It is not always easy to separate fact from opinion. Facts can usually be verified; opinions, though they may be based on factual information, evolve from the interpretation of facts. Skilled writers can make you think their interpretations are facts.
  2. Does the information appear to be valid and well-researched, or is it questionable and unsupported by evidence? Assumptions should be reasonable. Note errors or omissions.
  3. Are the ideas and arguments advanced more or less in line with other works you have read on the same topic? The more radically an author departs from the views of others in the same field, the more carefully and critically you should scrutinise his or her ideas.
  4. Is the author's point of view objective and impartial? Is the language free of emotion-arousing words and bias?

Coverage

  1. Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information? Does it extensively or marginally cover your topic? You should explore enough sources to obtain a variety of viewpoints.
  2. Is the material primary or secondary in nature? Primary sources are the raw material of the research process. Secondary sources are based on primary sources. For example, if you were researching DNA, Watson's and Crick's own writings would be a primary source available on this topic. Books, encyclopedia articles, and scholarly journal articles about DNA are considered secondary sources. In the sciences, journal articles and conference proceedings written by experimenters reporting the results of their research are primary documents. Choose both primary and secondary sources when you have the opportunity.

Writing Style

Is the publication organized logically? Are the main points clearly presented? Do you find the text easy to read, or is it stilted or choppy? Is the author's argument repetitive?

Evaluative Reviews

  1. If you can, try to locate a critical review of your book source, such as often published in the journal literature in that specific field. Is the review positive? Is the book under review considered a valuable contribution to the field? Does the reviewer mention other books that might be better? If so, locate these sources for more information on your topic. Books purchased for WHSL have already been reviewed for quality - using these sources is better than locating material of unknown quality on the Internet.
  2. Do the various reviewers agree on the value or attributes of the book or has it aroused controversy among the critics?
  3. For Web site evaluation, see WHSL Evaluating Web Sites for Health Information.
With kind permission this content is based on original material created by Olin Library Reference, Research & Learning Services, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY, USA. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-non-Commercial-Share-Alike 2.5 License