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10.467 - Polymer Science Laboratory: Evaluate information

Evaluate information

Why evaluate?
Information takes many forms and can be easy to find - but it's not always easy to determine good quality from poor quality information. You'll need to be critical in finding good information from primary sources.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources
Here are some tips to help you distinguish between the two types:

Primary Sources
vs.
Secondary Sources
  • accounts (articles, reports) of first hand, original research, study or experimentation conducted by the author(s) of the article or report
  • summaries or overviews of research conducted on a topic, written by someone other than the researcher(s)
  • primary research is typically published in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, which are written for and by professionals in a field
  • secondary source material is sometimes published in scholarly journals, but is commonly published in popular magazines or reported on during news and radio broadcasts
  • primary research = research articles or peer-reviewed articles
  • secondary source material = review articles or news articles
  • research articles are usually formatted with standard components, such as: an abstract, a methods section, discussion, a conclusion, and a bibliography of sources used to write that article
  • review articles are typically written in a non-technical manner (sometimes by journalists) and the accompanying bibliography (if there is one) is often a good place to find other articles on the same topic

 

There are many clues to identifying research articles - those that publish primary research. Read the abstract (summary) of the article, which often indicates that an original study or experiment formed the basis of the article. Examples of what to look for in the abstract include wording such as:

  • The aim of our study was to determine...
  • Our research concluded that...
  • The research we conducted shows that...

There are also clues to identifying secondary sources. Again, reading the abstract of the article will clue you in to whether or not the authors conducted the research that's being written about. Look for wording such as:

  • Researchers at MIT found that...
  • This paper reviews the research on...

Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. If you're not sure, contact the library for help.

What is a peer-reviewed journal?
Journals that are peer-reviewed are edited by professionals in the field. Each article submitted for publication in the journal must be reviewed by others to check for accuracy and originality before being accepted for publication. Scholarly journals are often peer-reviewed. Scholarly articles are usually written with standard components, such as: an abstract, a methods section, discussion, a conclusion, and a bibliography of sources used to write that article.

Peer review does not usually occur for articles in popular magazines. These articles are usually written by reporters or others, and are not passed by a review board before publication.

Books are reviewed by an editorial board (and possibly others) before being published.

There is no review process for web sites - anyone can publish anything on the web!

 

Critical Questions
Read information you find from any source with a critical eye! Use common sense and a little critical thinking before deciding on a reputable source of information. Consider these points when evaluating books, articles and web sites:

Who?
Who wrote it? What ideas is the author trying to promote? Does the author seem to favor one idea over another? Could this affect the conclusions drawn? Who is the intended audience of the information: professionals, laypersons, the general public?

Check:

  • that the author's name is given
  • where the author works - the author's affiliation
  • if the research was done by the author ("primary" source), or
    if the author is summarizing others' research ("secondary" source)
  • that the sources used are cited (i.e. footnotes and/or a bibliography)
  • the tone or writing style - is it technical (using professional lingo) or written in language easily understood by most people, including you?

What?
What ideas, theories, and/or major points are being conveyed? Is the information new to you, or are you already familiar with what is being discussed? Is the information accurate and reliable (can you find other information that validates it)? Does the information you found pertain to the aspect of the topic you're writing about?

Check:

  • Do the conclusions in the paper seem justified? Does the research make sense - i.e. if you were conducting this research, would you feel comfortable drawing the same conclusions based on the results?
  • While you may not feel qualified to judge research in areas that are unfamiliar to you, evaluating information involves little more than being critical of what you read and using a little common sense.
  • Look for references to other studies or publications on the same topic. Are sources used cited in footnotes or a bibliography?

Where?
Where's the information from? (see also "Who?")

Check:

  • who published the article, book, or web site - is the author's affiliation listed?
  • the reputation of the newspaper, journal, or magazine in which the article is published (e.g. is it from the Washington Post or the National Enquirer?)
  • the type of journal the article is published in (scholarly/peer-reviewed journal vs. trade journal vs. popular press magazine)
  • if statistics are given, people are named, or other research is referred to, are the sources cited?

When?
How old is the information? Is it too old to be useful (this can vary, depending on the area and type of information!)?

Check:

  • when was the article, book or web site written?
  • when was the web page last updated?
  • is it possible that there are newer statistics or research reports on the same topic?

If you have questions about the type, accuracy, or reliability of information you find, Ask Us! We can guide you through the evaluation process.