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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Archived Art & Design: Art History: Theory & Methodology: Introduction to Research Skills

Art History: Theory & Methodology

Evaluating & Understanding Resources

This page is a starting point for understanding and evaluating sources of information. It provide a general overview, but more information is available on this page. Using databases and resources provided in this guide will help guide you to resources that a valid, reliable, and scholarly in nature. However, no matter what type of resource being used, it is important to consider the credibility and relevancy of the source before including it as source of information or citation in your research. 

Scholarly Sources & Peer Reviewed Sources

What Is a Scholarly Source?

Scholarly sources are works that contain well-sourced, original research and meet the established standards of their discipline. Generally, these sources:

  • do not duplicate work that has already been done by other scholars
  • present a worthwhile approach to the topic
  • exist as part of a standing conversation on the topic, as represented by its citations to other scholarship
  • meet the above and other standards of the discipline, as generally agreed upon by scholars of the discipline

Scholarly sources can appear in a variety of formats, but most often are found as books, book chapters, and journal articles. 

There are several basic characteristics that can help determine if a resource is a scholarly source, this guide details those characteristics. Be sure to look at the criteria in each category when making a determination, rather than basing decisions on only one piece of information.

Also consult the Finding Library Materials--Suggested Databases section of this guide to find peer-reviewed journal articles. But above all, please talk to a librarian and your professor if you have questions about citing a source as a scholarly source.

What is Peer-Reviewed Source?

"Peer review" is a key term to know when looking for scholarly sources: If a journal is "Peer reviewed," that means the articles published in that journal were reviewed by an anonymous panel of other scholars, and the panel objectively verified the high level of scholarship in the article.

Understanding Google vs. Google Scholar

Google returns results on the basis of popularity. While popular beliefs are sometimes correct, we can all think of many instances when they are not correct. Since the internet itself -- the source of all of Google's results -- includes all sorts of misinformation, one cannot be certain that results returned from Google are absolutely reliable.

Google is fine for our everyday use:  In everyday life, we often use Google to find generally agreed upon facts about a topic.  But generally agreed upon topics aren't the focus of academic scholarship: scholars make arguments that often challenge presupposed facts, and need extremely reliable sources to strengthen their arguments. But all too often, the sources produced by Google do not provide enough evidence to verify the reliability of the information and facts they publish. 

Also, academic articles often will not to appear on websites searched by Google, because they are stored in subscription-only databases that provide limited access. Google Scholar (a *different* search engine) will find some articles, but it's best to talk with your professor or librarian about what sources to use. 

Ultimately for your papers and projects, it is best to use books, journal articles, reports, and other information sources (print and electronic) that are written and published by verified experts in the "peer review system." 

Understanding Wikipedia

Wikipedia makes certain efforts at reliability that search engines like Google do not, including its own system of peer-review.  Still, Wikipedia has different priorities than an academic peer-reviewed resource, and therefore it shouldn't be used in place of an academic source. But perhaps most important is the fact that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.  Encyclopedias are general information sources best used for gaining a quick overview of a topic and finding a list of resources and topics to guide you in further exploration. Encyclopedia articles generally avoid controversy, and the low level of detail provided by an encyclopedia is not going to be sufficient for your academic work.