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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

American Literature: Evaluating Sources

A guide to American Literature tools and resources.

Peer Review

"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.

Peer-reviewed journals are an excellent source for scholarly research articles. If you'd like to learn more, please see our Peer Review guide, which explains why peer review is important and where you can find peer-reviewed articles.

Google Scholar

Google and Google Scholar are separate search engines. While we discourage you from citing webpages and other resources discovered through a Google search, those discovered through Google Scholar are much more likely to be peer reviewed. But "much more likely" does not mean that they always are. Just remember that you will have better results if you use a subject-specific database, like MLA or ABELL.

Library Easy Search

Please keep in mind that the Library Easy Search is best used to search for known items and not for beginning a research project.

VPN

To access Library electronic resources from off-campus, connect through the campus VPN. Follow the instructions on this page: http://techservices.illinois.edu/services/virtual-private-networking-vpn. Make sure to select TUNNEL ALL and not Split Tunnel.

Please note that when searching Google for scholarly materials from you personal computer, you will need to go through the VPN in order to access article and books.

More Guides to Scholarly Sources

The Library has several guides on finding scholarly, 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 you will find them as books, book chapters, and journal articles. 

There are several basic characteristics that can help you determine if a resource you've found is a scholarly source, and this guide lists several criteria that can help you start identifying scholarly sources. Please talk to a librarian or your professor if you have questions about citing a source as a scholarly source.

What's wrong with Google?

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." For more information on academic standards and "peer review," read our Peer Review guide.

What's wrong with 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.  Wikipedia's design trades absolute reliability for convenience and quick updating.  You can never be certain that what you read on Wikipedia doesn't include misinformation that has yet to be corrected. Likewise, while Wikipedia does include a system for citation and the editorial evaluation of its entries, its real-time and open updating means that you can never be absolutely certain you're reading good information.

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.

For more information, see these Wikipedia entries on the Academic use of Wikipedia and the Reliability of Wikipedia.