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SearchStart: Choose: Deciding what to use

Choosing the right source

So much is written about most topics that it can be difficult to know which sources will be the best to use in your work.  As you learn more about your subject this will get easier, but there are some simple steps to help you choose what to read. 

Start by seeing if you can answer these questions;

  1. Is it relevant?
  2. Who wrote it?
  3. Why was it written?
  4. When was it written?

The next sections look at each of these questions followed by advice on identifying fake news. 

Is it relevant?

Think about what information you need to complete your assignment.  Something may be of the highest quality but may not help you answer the question for your assignment.   

For example you may be doing an assignment that requires you to take a UK perspective in which case information from outside the UK may be less helpful, but if you are required to take a comparative or international perspective then the same information may be very useful. 

Tip: You don't need to read something right through to decide if it is relevant.  Look at the abstract or introduction and the conclusion.  This will tell you the main points of what you are reading, and if it is at a suitable level.  If you decide it is relevant you will need to read it more closely to support your work. 

Who wrote it?

It is always helpful to know who is responsible for what you are reading.  When you are new to a subject looking for works by authors that are recommended on reading lists can be a good way to start but you can read more widely.  For Books and journal articles there is often information about authors' university connections.  

Not everything is written by named individuals. Information may be produced by governments and organizations. For example, if policy is relevant to your assignment this kind of information can be essential to your work. 

Information on websites can be very good quality or very poor.  Knowing who is responsible for the information will be an important step to assessing its quality.   Good websites will usually have an About statement telling you about the organisation responsible for the website

Why was it written?

All information is written for a purpose or from a particular point of view.   Knowing why something was written, and knowing the point of view or assumptions of the writer, will help you decide whether it will be useful for your work and to evaluate what you are reading.  

Here are some useful questions to consider when evaluating a resource. 

Is the author presenting a balanced argument?

Signs that the argument may not be balanced include:

  • Statements and claims are not supported by evidence.
  • The author does not acknowledge ideas and knowledge that are widely acknowledged to be open to debate by experts in the subject.
  • Language that expresses strong feeling or emotion.
Are there any financial or other interests that might have influenced the author?

Signs that an author may be writing to support a particular point of view:

  • Information about funding or sponsorship.
  • Membership of a lobby group or political party.
What is the intended audience?
  • A textbook written for university students should provide a clear and structured  introduction to established knowledge in your subject including alerting you to where ideas are.contested.
  • A book or article written for a general audience may miss important areas of knowledge and debate
  • A research article that has been 'peer-reviewed' by experts before publication will usually present arguments and research supported by evidence.  They may be written for an expert audience and  be challenging for students new to the subject. 
  • Policy documents and guidance may reflect government and organisational interests and standards or values agreed by professional bodies.  

Identifying that something is written for a particular purpose or from a particular point of view does not mean that you cannot use it in your work. In some cases this will be essential, for example to show that you know policy that is relevant to your work or to allow you to discuss public debates about your subject. In works that consider social justice and equality, and many other areas, language that expresses strong feelings or emotions may be appropriate in providing a context for the authors engagement with a topic.  

Most research will receive funding of some sort so if it is important that you can see where the funding has come from in order to judge how this might influence the research.   Funding may not determine the conclusions of research but it does influence what research is carried out in the first place. 


Use this handy evaluation checklist

Use this handout to help you decide whether to use a piece of information in your work.

When was it written?

At university you will be expected to develop an understanding of current knowledge and debates in your subject. So it is important that your reading includes up-to-date publications where possible.  There is no exact rule for what counts as up-to-date but generally looking at information from the last  5 or 10 years will be appropriate. If you are exploring a topic where public policy is important it is important that your reading reflect the latest changes in policy.   When you find resources in Library Search the date is displayed in your results and you can filter your results by date so you only see recent items. 

Books and journal articles usually have a clear date which can be found with the copyright statement near the front of a book or on the title page of a journal article.  Websites usually show when they were last updated or revised near the bottom of the page.    

There may be good reasons to use older resources.  You may want to explore the development of an artist though her career, you may need to discuss something that has been an important influence on current writers or you may be exploring a topic for which there has been little recent research.  

Fake News

Being able to choose what resources to use is not just an academic skill.   It is as important to have access to good quality information in your professional life and when making personal decisions. Concerns about fake news show that recognising good quality information is just as vital when using social media, search engines or reading a newspaper. 

A simple definition of fake news is:

"Fake, often sensational information disseminated under the guise of a new report"

(Collins English Dictionary . Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers ).

Click on the image below for more on the key things to think about when reading a news story

If you have any doubts about a news story you should follow up with a fact checking service like Full Fact. 

Fake Fact Checks!  Be careful. Services that appear to be neutral may not be. On Tuesday 19 November 2019, during televised election debates between Labour and Conservative party leaders, the Conservative Party press office rebranded it's twitter feed as FactCheckUK in order to challenge statements made by the Labour party leader during the debate.  

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