Evaluation of Information Sources
Part I, Types of Information Sources


This tutorial is intended to give you a foundation in the evaluation of Information Sources. Once you find information, you need to evaluate it, to determine its value with respect to your information needs. This tutorial is presented in two parts. Part I will discuss understanding what type of information source you have and Part II will cover the criteria by which you may evaluate an information source.

To effectively evaluate an information source, you must first determine exactly what you are looking at. There are a number of different categories into which we divide information. This tutorial will discuss first identifying Primary and Secondary sources, then identifying Popular and Scholarly sources. These distinctions will affect how reliable and/or valuable that information might be for any particular information need.

Primary Sources:

A Primary Source of information is a firsthand or eyewitness account of an event. It is also raw data or facts which were gathered at an event. They are direct sources of information.

Primary sources include diaries, letters, newspaper articles reported from an event, public documents, laws, court records, speeches, statistics, surveys, logs, journals, family bibles, etc.

A Primary Source of Information is actual evidence presented without any analysis or interpretation.

Secondary Sources:

A Secondary Source of information is something which comes after the fact. It is literature that analyzes, interprets, relates or evaluates a primary source or other primary sources. Textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries, any book or article which is an interpretation of events, or of primary sources are considered secondary sources.

This does not mean that secondary materials are not good sources of information. Often by collecting data from a number of different primary sources, new ideas and insights into an event may be found.

Combination Sources:

Actually, the distinctions between Primary and Secondary materials can get very blurry. Think about the autobiography which was written many years later. The person has a long time to think about, analyze and interpret events and to exaggerate or "forget" certain details. While it is a firsthand account, it is probably not without some bias.

Now consider legal documents, forms which are filled out. Most, like a marriage certificate or birth certificate, are filled out and signed at the time of the event. These are clearly primary documents. But think about other forms you might fill out with information about your parents. You were not around when they were born, so data regarding their place and date of birth would be secondary information. A death certificate is generally considered both a primary and secondary source of information. The information relating to the death, time place cause, etc., is primary but any information regarding the birth of that person is generally provided by a child or spouse, who was not around at the time to be an eye witness, so it would be secondary information.

What does this matter?

When you are evaluating information, you should take into consideration where it is coming from. A story about something that happened to a friend of a friend is less reliable than a story about what happened to you.

History can become much more interesting when reading a first hand account of events than just that history textbook.

You might run across conflicting information, which should you believe? Which is closer to the actual event? You probably cannot only rely on primary information, but be aware of the differences. It is often helpful to include both primary and secondary information in your research.

Popular vs. Scholarly:

The next thing to consider when evaluating an information source is who the general audience for the material would be. In other words, who is it written by and who is it written for? This concept can be applied to all formats of information, from journal and magazine articles, to books, to web pages.

  • Popular sources of information are meant for a general audience, who are not necessarily experts in the field. They are presented in such a way that anyone can get a general idea of the information being presented.
  • Scholarly Sources of information are meant for a more specialized audience of experts in the field.
There are a number of criteria you can use to determine if something is popular or scholarly-

The treatment of the topic, or writing style
  • Tend to deal with very specific topics
  • Long in-depth articles
  • Are usually original research
  • Uses technical language or jargon
  • Tend to deal with more broad topics
  • Short overview articles
  • Not original research
  • Uses plain everyday language
Experts in the field (Scientists, doctors, professors...)
Journalists, not necessarily experts (magazine staff, freelance writers...)

Audience, or who is the information written for?
Scholars, researchers, practitioners... other members of the field
General public. Any one can read the material and understand it.

Often a scholarly or professional organization
Commercial companies

Peer-reviewed / Refereed - edited or reviewed by other experts in the field.
NOT peer-reviewed - edited by one editor, or editorial board, for readability and popularity, they are not necessarily experts in any field other than journalism.
Does include References or Bibliography. Often several pages of references.
No references. Sometimes mentions of experts, but no bibliographies.

Plain covers, few pictures - maybe some graphs and charts, matte paper, few if any advertisements.
Glossy covers, lots of color pictures, lots of advertisements

This sounds very straight forward, and usually is, but sometimes things do fall into both categories. National Geographic Magazine is one such entity. It is written for a general audience, has lots of nice pictures, is widely available and fairly inexpensive, but the articles are very well researched by experts in the field, and usually do have extensive references with the content. It is a scholarly publication, but is easily accessible to a popular audience. Another example is Highlights Magazine. It is written by educators and experts in the field of education and children, but is intended for use by children and parents. While it would be considered a popular resource, it does have characteristics of a scholarly resource.

This completes Part I of the Evaluation of Information Sources tutorial.

Part II deals with Evaluation Criteria.