Can I trust the books and articles I find from Western’s websites? Are they reliable?


This is a tricky question to answer.  This was posed to me by a history student, so my answer is geared to their needs:

Western is an academic institution: we are not trying to collect every book on the planet but rather the materials that support the learning and research of our students, staff and faculty.  That said, it is possible that there are books in our collection that may not be “credible” for your essay, depending on your topic.  Part of academia is keeping a record of past interpretations of different topics, so things will not be thrown out just because they’re not contemporary thought.  And, as my husband says, anybody can write a book.

So, if you’re worried about the credibility of books, make sure to look at them with a critical eye.  This doesn’t have to be a long, complicated process, but just glancing over a few things (i.e. who wrote it, when was it published, etc).  I have another blog post about simple ways to evaluate resources.

As for journal articles, it’s easier to make sure that you’re finding good quality stuff while you’re doing your research.  If you’re searching in an academic database, usually there’s a “peer-reviewed” option that you can check.  Choosing this option will only look at scholarly material that has gone through the peer-review process, rather than having other stuff mixed in (i.e. book reviews, trade magazines, etc). I’ve included a screenshot of Historical Abstracts so you can see what I mean.

HistoricalAbstracts_peerreviewed_cleverresearcher

Summon has a similar option, but it’s called “Limit to articles from scholarly publications.”

Regardless of what type of resource you’re researching, though, make sure to use a critical eye and read what you’ve found!

Can I use popular periodicals (like magazines) in my essay?


This one-hundred-percent depends on your professor.  If you haven’t asked them yet, or if you haven’t read your assignment instructions, do that first before reading any further.

If you would prefer to take my advice, my answer to this question would be: no.  If you have any doubt whether it’s appropriate, it’s better to play it safe.

What is a “popular periodical” some of you may ask?  These would be things like popular magazines (Macleans, Time, People), trade magazines (Foodservice and Hospitality) or newspapers.  Academic periodicals include journal articles.

Consider your assignment, too: if you’re writing a thesis-based research essay, citing from US weekly probably isn’t the best idea.  But for some assignments – i.e. especially for MOS students – it’s advisable to look at trade magazines.

So, make sure to ask your prof!

Can I use this website in my bibliography?


First thing’s first: does your professor want you to use websites?  If your assignment instructions don’t say, make sure to run it by your instructor.

For the most part, judge a website like you would any other resource (see: the AA-BB-C’s blog post).  In particular, look at the following:

  1. Who wrote it?  This is often super hard to find on a website, but look at the “About” page or the “Contact Us” page.  Then think about who the author is – does it say?  Are they an expert in the field?  Do you know?  Can you Google them in 30 seconds and find your answer?
  2. Where did they get their information?  If no reference list is included, that’s a bad sign. Look for a “reading list” or a page that says “for more information,” anything like that.  A good site will give you this information, or citations along the bottom of the page.
  3. How current is the site?  Don’t trust the “last updated” date, either: this can be set to automatically update by web programmers, something you don’t have to worry about with other forms of research.  Look at their information: is it similar to the other research you’ve been doing?  Are their citations up to date?  Is every single page the same from one week to the next (especially the home page?) It’s a bad sign if a website doesn’t update their homepage every few days.
  4. Who is the site written for?  If a website has been produced for children, obviously the information will be different from professional website.  If it’s an organization, consider who would be using the site: this will help point out any biases that may exist.
  5. Is there a sponsor of the website?  Is there some company’s brand flashing around, or a link at the bottom of the page that says “sponsor”?  Or are there Google advertisements all over the place?  For our Health Science friends, beware the sites that are sponsored by drug companies: they often have ulterior motives!

While using websites is both tricky and useful, it’s important to think about them before citing them in your bibliography.  The above steps don’t have to be too time-consuming, either.  Make it a habit to start looking for this information while you read the site.

An awkward segue: I have a blog post about citing websites, too, if you need it.

Good luck with your website evaluation!

Google Scholar: A Credible Database?


Over the last few years, the usefulness of Google Scholar has really improved.  I used it when updating a literature review recently (I’m cool, I know) and was pleased with how easy it was to use.  I did find credible resources during this process, too.

But, is it as credible as other databases?  Unfortunately it’s not that simple: Google Scholar’s purpose and function are just different from other databases.  Google Scholar intends to be a place for researchers to start.  As their “About” page says: Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature.

The way Google Scholar indexes or collects its information is different from other databases, too.  “Scholarly” databases usually index articles on specific disciplines or  topics, with certain journals being included on purpose.  Basically, they’re created by people.  Google Scholar, like regular Google, is created by a computer: Google’s “robots” scan different webpages for scholarly material, with less care going into the journals that publish these articles.

What you’re probably looking for is a straight answer.  If I had to give you one, I’d say go ahead and use Google Scholar.  It can be helpful when you’re starting the research process on a topic, it finds credible journal articles, and it often turns up stuff you wouldn’t find elsewhere.  Make sure to use it, though, in combination with other subject-specific databases.

One more thing: if you’re wondering whether you should use Google Scholar over Summon, I would recommend sticking with Summon.  While Google Scholar has great benefits, Summon will only bring up articles that you have access to.  This means you won’t have to do as much poking around to find the full-text of articles as you would with Google Scholar.

For more information, I’ve put together a pros and cons list for Google Scholar.

Pros:

  • Only credible, scholarly material is included in Google Scholar, according to the inclusion criteria: “content such as news or magazine articles, book reviews, and editorials is not appropriate for Google Scholar.”  Technical reports, conference presentations, and journal articles are included, as are links to Google Books.
  • This database is a citation index, meaning you can search the number of times an article has been cited by other people.  This is a function of many credible databases.
  • Google Scholar is interdisciplinary, meaning you are searching a huge range of topics all at once.  You get different search results this way than you’d find in traditional databases, as a result.
  • You can find A LOT more material using Google Scholar than some other databases (not all).
  • It’s easy to use because it’s familiar.

Cons:

  • It rarely finds all of the reliable material that “scholarly” databases do, and it sometimes misses really important articles: studies comparing Google Scholar with PsycINFO, PubMed, Web of Science, Scopus, and more found that Google Scholar was unable to produce all of the articles listed in the scholarly databases.  This means you can’t rely on Google Scholar alone.
  • Computer errors are more common with Google Scholar because it isn’t maintained by people: broken links, repetitive results, and other issues are more likely with this database than others.
  • It still says “beta” even though it’s been on the market for years.  This is odd, and potentially indicates that Google Inc. realizes there are problems with the product.
  • It may not offer any more benefits than Summon does, through Brescia and Western Libraries.

Sources: Google Scholar Bibliography.

The AA-BB-C’s of credibility


Credibility is an important aspect of academic research.  In order to argue our points well we must use trustworthy, reliable, and accurate sources.

We can determine credibility ourselves by evaluating resources for some of the following:

  1. Accuracy
    Is your resource consistent with what other resources say about your topic?  Obviously this is difficult to determine until you have done some reading.  But it’s important to differentiate between cutting edge research and falsified content.  If someone’s findings seem completely contradictory to everything else you’ve read without a good explanation, you may want to avoid using the resource OR run the resource by your professor.
  2. Authority
    Take a quick look at the author: are they a PhD or otherwise qualified researcher?  Are they affiliated with a reputable academic institution or organization?  If  the author’s credentials are not listed or if they’re not considered an expert on your topic, think twice before including the resource in your bibliography.
  3. Bias
    While writers will often include a personal opinion, you want to be sure it is not extremely one-sided or prejudiced in any way.  Even the best researchers can fall victim to a bias, so it is important to look at resources objectively and determine whether they are still useful for you, or not.  A source may still be valuable if it is skewed in some way, but make sure to present a balanced perspective in your assignment.
  4. Bibliography
    This might seem straight forward, but check to see if the author has included a bibliography at all.  You’ll be surprised how often this is not the case.  There are many explanations for this (i.e. publishers may feel that too many references make a book less accessible to the general public) but they’re not good enough when you’re completing academic research.
    Once you’ve found the bibliography, just take a quick scan of it: are they citing the same person over and over?  Do the dates of their references make sense, given their date of publication and the topic?  You don’t need to spend too much time on the bibliography, but it’s a good indication of a resource’s quality.
  5. Currency
    It is important to consider how up-to-date a resource is before relying on it.  While looking at the date of publication can be a good indicator, make sure to consider other factors.  Once you’ve done some research on your topic, for example, you’ll get a good sense of what the most current research is finding, or what the current arguments on your topic are.  It’s hard to evaluate anything for currency, then, before doing some reading.

To sum it all up: actually read the resources you find.  Don’t rely on abstracts and book reviews alone! You will be accomplishing many of the above tasks at the same time as reading, without even realizing it, so evaluation doesn’t need to take a huge amount of time.