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POLS: Political Science: Choosing Credible Sources

A guide to research and information sources in political science.

Using credible sources for research means we can trust that information, which is critical if we are using the information to make decisions or take actions that impact our lives. The sources you use for research will also affect your own credibility in the eyes of your audience and contribute to your own trustworthiness. Below, learn how to determine a source's credibility by considering its relevancy, authority, and accuracy. This page also provides tips for avoiding bias and misinformation and shares information about scholarly and peer-reviewed sources. 

Considering a Source's Relevancy (Usefulness)

Not all sources about your topic will provide the same information or be a good fit for your needs. Information sources can vary in their:

  • Purpose
  • Audience and scope / level of detail
  • Authority or credibility

When choosing information sources, you should consider:

  • your topic and research questions or needs
  • your audience or what you will be doing with the information you have found
  • the level of research you are doing (in this case, academic / college)
  • any assignment guidelines, since your professor may want you to gain experience working with certain types of sources you may not encounter in other contexts or ones you may be expected to use for professional research after college.

Although well-rounded research often consists of a variety of information sources, the above considerations will help guide you to the most relevant ones for your needs. Whether it's by searching library collections and databases or for certain kinds of websites, the sources you use for your research should be the best available to you for your purpose, not just any or the first sources you find. 

Considering a Source's Authority & Accuracy

The author's expertise and the accuracy of the information that is being shared determine the credibility and trustworthiness of a source.

When working with a potential source, ask yourself if you know the source, its reputation, and the reputation of the information itself. If you don't, you will need to look further into it with some additional searching. This might mean looking for the author and publisher's expertise, reputation, background, or agenda. It may mean trying to determine if they have any intentional or unintentional bias about the topic. Or it might mean confirming the individual pieces of information in other sources and considering what the consensus is. This process is called reading laterally across sources

If the source credits its sources, trace any claims or questionable information back to its original context. It's usually better to use the original source of the information, not the secondary source. This may lead you to more information and other sources you can use as well.

Methods and resources for evaluating information:

Avoiding Misinformation & Bias

It is especially important to avoid bias and misinformation in sources. Bias and misinformation might be present if the source or author:

  • has more than an educational or informational intent or purpose
  • bases the information shared on opinion instead of facts and evidence
  • omits, ignores, or inaccurately presents facts
  • only presents one perspective on the topic
  • is trying to harm someone or group by sharing the information

Sometimes you will want to avoid these sources completely, while other times, if you acknowledge their bias and misinformation, you may be able to selectively use them in combination with other unbiased and accurate sources that make up for these faults. 

Scholarly and Peer-Reviewed Sources

Scholarly and peer-reviewed sources are very common in academic and professional research and are often considered to be the most relevant and credible sources you can use. 

If a source is scholarly, it means the work (usually a book, book chapter, critical essay, or journal article):

  • was written by scholars, experts, or researchers
  • intended to be read by other scholars, experts, and researchers who have familiarity with the topic or subject
  • presents original research (the results or findings of a study or experiment), proposes a theory, or gives a detailed analysis

Sometimes, it may review several previously conducted research studies or experiments. Typically, it also:

  • is published by a university or academic press or professional association 
  • includes a bibliography, footnotes, or in-text citations for the sources it refers to
  • has a professional appearance (no spelling or grammatical errors, no advertisements or unrelated images)

A peer-reviewed source has all of the above characteristics, and additionally:

  • has been assessed for accuracy & quality by other experts / scholars in the field or of the topic
  • has been edited or revised by the author based on that peer feedback

Scholarly and peer-reviewed sources can be very narrowly focused, technical, and detailed, so they may not be the easiest sources to consult at the beginning of your research. They may also not always be useful for the level of research you are doing.