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Research Workshop

Lecture: Evalutaing Sources

In a conversation with a real person, once you have asked him a question and listened to his answer, you engage with what he has just said, preferably in an intelligent and courteous way which shows you have been listening and have understood him. The same is true in research: once you've located some resources from your searches, you need to evaluate and engage with what you've found. The following criteria will help you evaluate a source you find online or a book you pick up off the shelf. Many resources are not as helpful as they may appear in a library catalog, so knowing how to narrow down which sources you will actually check out and take home (or download onto your hard drive) will save you a lot of time.


Authority

What are the author's credentials? Is he a recognized scholar--someone who has established ethos on this topic--or is it just Uncle Fred venting on his blog? If you are researching vaccines, for example, are you reading credible scientific sources or just the comments of hysterical parents? You want to be certain that whatever sources you use in your paper or project are authoritative; otherwise, you undermine your own position and make it much harder to get to the truth at the bottom of your topic.

What are the author's academic/institutional affiliations? Even recognized scholars are often associated with particular universities, programs, or institutions that are pushing their own agendas. This is important--you don't want to quote a resource in your paper without understanding something about the context surrounding it. If it is part of a particular agenda, you should know that before you use it, or your research can become slanted without your even knowing it.


Tip: In a book, this information is often contained in the "about the author" blurb on the back or inside either cover, or at the end of the text. 

In a journal article, authority can often be determined by finding out whether the journal itself is "peer-reviewed." A peer-reviewed article has been submitted by the author to a panel of his peers in the same field, who have double-checked his data, references, and footnotes, and have often had him re-write the article several times until it meets their standards and approval. Having an article published in a peer-reviewed journal is a sign that the author has been recognized as a legitimate authority by experts on the subject. Many journal databases will allow you to limit your search to peer-reviewed titles only; this is a good way to weed out less authoritative sources.

On a website, authority can be difficult to discern. In general, it's wise not to use a source if you have no information about its author. This is why many professors do not accept a site like Wikipedia as a legitimate source; anyone in the world can edit its articles anonymously, so the information may or may not be authoritative or credible.

Purpose

Why was this resource published? Who was its intended audience? These questions can give you an idea of whether a particular resource is appropriate for your paper. If it was published for a particular event (a lecture at a conference, for example), see if you can find out more about that event. If it was written to a particular audience (devotees of C. S. Lewis, for example), keep that in mind when you use it.

Does the author have any financial stake in expressing his view? Keep this in mind as you evaluate sources, as an author who is just trying to make money will not necessarily be a trustworthy source. Is this someone, for example, who has written 20 books on how to write The Most Amazing Best-Selling Novel of All Time, but has not actually written a single novel himself (best-selling or otherwise)? That is the sign of the Huckster. Hucksters are not recommended as academic sources.


Tip: In a book, this kind of information is often found in the preface or foreword; always skim these if a book has one. In a journal article, it's sometimes included in the abstract or the introductory paragraphs. On a website, the medium itself (e.g., blog post vs. government site) may tell you something about its purpose.

Scope

What topic(s) does this source cover, and in what depth? Is it relevant to your project? Does it provide (a) background information, (b) summarize research, or (c) respond to scholarly arguments? 

Find this information out before you take a source home or add it to your bibliography. Some books won't discuss your topic in great enough depth; others will be major overkill; others will simply be focused on a different topic or angle of thought entirely. Pick resources that are part of the same conversation that you are having, and that address it at a similar level.


Tip: In a book, check out the table of contents, the introduction, and the index. In a journal article, find the abstract. On a website, look through the site's menu and connecting links.

Publisher

Does the publisher have biases or financial stakes in an issue? If this is a journal, is it peer-reviewed? If so, by whom? If it's a book, was it self-published? If it's an online article, is it from the website of a major organization?

These questions are similar to those on a source's authority; by examining the details of a source's publication, however, you are simply establishing the authority of its publisher instead of its author. This information can tell you a lot about a source. A book that was self-published, for example, may be the work of some enterprising individual, or it may be the work of someone who just wasn't good enough to get published by a recognized firm. A publishing house attached to a liberal university will most likely be publishing liberal material. A Christian publishing house may have ties to congregations which hold particular doctrines that you may or may not agree with. These are good things to know before you use a source.


Tip: When determining the authority of a publisher, dig around on the publisher's website for a few minutes. It's always worth the effort to get even that much understanding of a source's context.

Currency

How long ago was this source published? Is your topic one for which up-to-date information is crucial for accuracy? Is there a newer edition of the book available?


Tip: For subject areas like philosophy, history, theology, and literature, currency is not generally a crucial issue, as information in these fields does not develop quickly, if at all. For fields like science, medicine, and technology, it is an important factor to consider--sources older than ten years are probably suspect. 

Lecture: Using Sources

In your ongoing scholarly conversation, you have now reached the point where you can make your own contributions. You have asked a question, listened to various answers, and probably followed up with more and better questions; you have evaluated the answers you have heard, discarded those that are not relevant or useful, and pondered the ones that are. You are now responsible for putting what you have learned together in a coherent way that advances your own position.

Evaluating a source has to do with determining whether you will use it for your assignment, based on its inherent worth. Engaging with a source, on the other hand, has to do with determining how you will use it in your paper.

One important thing to keep in mind when engaging with a source is whether that source is a primary or secondary source. This difference will dictate how you interact with your sources and what authority or priority you give to each.

A primary source is an original source. It presents raw data, offers first-hand experience or an eyewitness account, or advances original arguments or thoughts. Primary sources, in other words, give you direct access to your topic. Often, it is these sources which your professors will have you comment on in your papers. (For instance, in the prompt "Analyze Augustine's view of creation as presented in book XII of his Confessions," Confessions would be your primary source.)

A secondary source comments on a primary source. It continues the conversation started by a primary author by offering analysis, interpretation, synthesis, or evaluation of his work. Secondary sources are typically tangential to your topic; while they have no bearing on your topic directly, they offer the insights of someone who has asked the same question of a primary source that you are, and who has explored the answer in depth over time. It is these sources which you will interact with in your own argument regarding a primary source. (In our Confessions example above, secondary sources would comprise scholars who have written about The Confessions, Augustine, and his view of creation.)

Different assignments may require different mixtures of these two types of sources. In a short-response paper, for instance, you may just be asked for your own analysis of a passage from a primary source. In a longer research paper, however, you may be asked to evaluate a primary source and include a certain number of secondary sources in your research and bibliography. And in a thesis or more advanced research project, you may be asked to select your own primary sources and determine for yourself how many secondary sources are necessary.

After you have identified the primary and secondary sources of your topic, you still have to determine the purpose each source will play in your own argument and the balance between others' voices and your own.

To determine a source's purpose in your paper, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this source provide context or background that could be useful to your audience? (If it helped you understand or clarify your position, chances are it will help your readers as well.)
  • Does it raise relevant questions or introduce a particular line of thought?
  • Does it lend authority or support to your position?
  • Does it argue against or complicate your position?

The focus of your paper is ultimately your own position expressed in your own voice. Whenever you introduce a source, you do so simply to advance your own argument. It can be easy to slide sideways into focusing on secondary material for its own sake, but take care that you discuss secondary resources only insofar as they help develop your own position. The more sources you have, the trickier it can be to maintain this balance. With a lot of sources, you must often assume the role of a facilitator: you must lead the conversation, allowing each participant to contribute, bringing others into dialogue with each other, and ultimately guiding the subject to a particular destination.

All this discourages you from just skimming a text, picking out a couple of quotes that appear to relate to your topic, and jamming them haphazardly into your paper. That is the habit of a careless, lazy, dishonest scholar; it indicates that you are just going for source and word count and are not actually interested in creating an informed argument that makes a real contribution to a scholarly conversation. This manner of writing can certainly be tempting (especially if you were careless enough to leave your paper unwritten until the day before it's due); it requires less work, less thought, and--who knows?--you might be able to fudge it well enough to score a decent grade. But that is not your ultimate purpose in writing. You're a Christian who wants to see every thought taken captive to Christ, and that means work--hard work, and lots of it. Don't cut corners! Give yourself the time to find resources; evaluate them; actually grasp their arguments and decide if they're relevant to your question; discern how they fit together; and assign each one a particular purpose in your argument.

There are some practical differences when you actually integrate source material into your paper. Consider the following methods and choose which is appropriate for each source:

What is it?
A summary is a condensed version of an author's key points. It can be as short as a couple sentences or as long as a paragraph, depending on the complexity of the material you are summarizing and the space you have available in your paper.

When do you use it?
You summarize when you are planning to use a source and need your reader to understand its main points or plot before you respond to it in your own argument.

A note:
Your reader doesn't need to know everything about a source in order to comprehend what you want to say about it. Put only as much detail into your summary as is necessary for your audience to grasp your point.

What is it?
A paraphrase is a restatement of someone else's words in your own words. It does not condense, it re-words with the same level of detail as the original material.

When do you use it?
You paraphrase when you are using a source in your paper in any way but have no reason to quote from it directly.

A note:
When you paraphrase, make sure to introduce the material carefully so that your reader understands why it is there. Also, be careful to paraphrase accurately and consistently.

What is it?
A direct quote pulls material directly from a source into your paper, unedited, exactly as the author wrote it.

When do you use it?
You use a direct quote when you want your reader to read the language the author himself used--if, for instance, you are planning to analyze the language, words, syntax, cadence, or structure of the original material as part of your argument. Also, you may sometimes have material that is difficult to paraphrase; if you risk losing the author's meaning or important connotations, quote him directly. Lastly, if an author's authority is an important element in your argument and quoting him directly will emphasize that authority, do so.

A note:
You can choose to quote shorter or longer passages from a source. In general, it is a bad idea to put longer block quotations into your paper unless you are actually interacting with or analyzing the entire passage. In any other situation, a block quotation is just taking up words, space, and attention from your reader that could be devoted to your own argument. Only quote directly when it will actually support or clarify your point.

All of the above methods of using a source require you to cite that source. Summaries, paraphrases, and quotations are all ways of using someone else's work, so you must give the original author credit. (See Lesson 9 for more information on citation.) Examples of each of these three methods of uses someone else's work are available in the optional "Further Reading" box to the left.

Here's a real-life example of engaging/evaluating resources from Tyndale's manager, Helen Howell:

As I listened to the people I had identified as the most important authorities on my topic, a couple of different arguments came into focus. The pre-Tolkien scholars had been divided into two main camps: those who thought the historical digressions intruded on the important monster bits, and those who thought the monster narrative intruded on the important historical material. Both were looting the poem for what they thought was the truly valuable stuff.

Tolkien (all hail!) single-handedly revolutionized the approach to the poem by suggesting very sensibly that it should be approached...as a poem. As a hale and hearty and complex work of art in and of itself, and not as a chest to be raided for historical or mythological material (though of course both of those things were present). The scholars who followed him were as a result much more unified in their approach to the work, if not in their conclusions about it.

I was listening to books by Klaeber, Tolkien, Brodeur, and Bonjour in particular, and I sticky-noted the dickens out of those four books, taking research notes as I went along of how each author fit into the big picture and how his material related to my questions. Some ideas that popped up along the way had to be discarded based on their scholarship (not every tiny digression fit into the pattern, however badly I wanted it to), and others had to be kept on a provisional basis. (The connection between Scyld and Grendel, although arguable, was definitely more tenuous than the one between Unferth and Grendel, despite my best efforts).

Klaeber and Tolkien gave me some great background information, which gave me a foundation to start with. Bonjour and Brodeur had some fascinating and detailed arguments about the interpretation of specific digressions, which usually served as support for my own argument--although a few of their observations provided some complications I had to address. They forced me back to the text and made me wrestle with it.

This made me realize my final question, which I answered in my thesis statement: If the digressions foreshadow the monsters (which they do, as I established in the body of my paper), why did the poem end on a long digression? Was it hinting at a fourth and final monster? And if so, what was it?

Sorting through these materials took time, effort, and concentrated thought, but by the time the books were stickied and my notes organized, I was already almost done. I knew what the question was that I wanted to answer, I knew who had been talking about the issue already, and I knew how all their arguments fit together. All that remained was to assemble the material coherently around the structure of my own argument.

Exercise 5

1. Analyze at least one source from a paper you've already written or are writing this term, listing the following information:

  • Source's author and title
  • Whether the source is "primary" or "secondary"
  • Author's authority/qualifications on your topic
  • Author's stated purpose in writing, and his intended audience
  • The purpose of the source in your paper (i.e., provides background information, raises relevant questions, supports your argument, and/or contradicts your argument)
  • How the source's scope compares to that of your paper (broader than your paper, narrower than your paper, identical to your paper)
  • Source's publisher, and any biases they might have
    • ​You can find this information out through a quick Google search on the publisher.
  • Source's date of publication, and whether this impacts the source's validity for your topic

2. Submit a PDF document containing #1 under the "Exercise 5" assignment on the Populi class page.