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Guide to Research and Writing for the Academic Study of Religion

General Criteria for Evaluating Sources

Criteria What to Look For
Audience Who is the intended audience of the work? Is it intended for an academic audience or a popular one? For adults or children? Determining the audience can especially help you to distinguish between scholarly journals and popular magazines.
Format Ask yourself what the format of the source is. This can often give clues as to the credibility of the source. If you are looking for a scholarly source, you likely will not find it in a pamphlet or in a popular journal.
Objectivity Is the source fact, opinion, or propaganda? Keep in mind that nothing is completely unbiased, even statistics do not tell just one story. However, the degree of bias varies. Ask yourself if the author has a vested interest in you believing what is written. With some sources in religious studies, it is useful to ask if the material is intended for the believer, to defend religious beliefs, or to convert unbelievers.
Coverage What does that material cover? This question rarely addresses the credibility of a work, but will help you determine if the source is appropriate to your research needs. If you are researching Tibetan Buddhism and find a book on Asia or an article on Chan Buddhism, these sources are likely not going to be helpful.
Citations to Other Works Check how many citations the work uses and what works the source is referencing. Usually the presence of citations indicates some degree of academic integrity, though don't depend on this alone. As you become more and more familiar with certain areas of research, you will be able to evaluate the works that your source has referenced to help you evaluate the quality of the source.

What authority does the author have? This question can be a difficult one to figure out when you are new to an area or specialization. Some clues that help even if you are in unfamiliar territory are:

  • Affiliation: Are they part of a university or research institution?
  • Familiarity: Have they been mentioned by your professor or in previous classes? (Be careful though, when a name is familiar sometimes it isn't for good reasons!)
  • Citations: Have you seen them cited regularly in other academically sound work?
  • Quick Web Search: if still in doubt, enter their name into a Web search engine. This method can be hit or miss, especially if the author has a common name. It is a better method for affirming that someone is credible than for establishing that they are not. In other words, you will likely decide it is a good source or be no further along than before.
  • Publisher: Is the publisher a respected name in the field?
Content When was the source printed and how many times has it been reprinted? If you have found a book whose content perfectly matches the information you are trying to find but it was printed in the early seventies, you will have to judge how far your area has changed to decide if the source is still relevant.  Searching the title on Google Scholar to see how many people have cited and/or research Mendeley to see how many people have included it in their libraries are helpful methods to determine the relevancy of the content.    If a book has been reprinted many times, it is a useful indication that the book is a standard in the discipline.
Credibility A useful tool to check if a source is credible is to look it up on WorldCat (note there is also a free version called and see how many libraries own the work.  When you have found a source that you are not sure about, but believe that it would be very useful for your research, try to locate a review of it.


Criteria for Evaluating Web Sites

Criteria for Evaluating Web Sources

With the right set of evaluative tools, you should have no problem evaluating the sources you find on the Web. Though many of the standards for evaluating sources are the same for web pages as they are for hard copy material, there are some other tricks for evaluating Web sites as well:

  • Domain Names
    What is the domain name? Was the site posted by or is it affiliated with an organization that you trust, for instance, an accredited university or respected organization? If you are not familiar with the organization, the address ending can give you a clue. If it is site you know it is a commercial Web site. If it is .edu you know it is an educational institution. However, .edu is only American universities and colleges. Many endings are country specific (.ca, .uk, .be), which means they will give very little guidance as to the credibility of the Web site but will tell you where they are posted. Become familiar with these different endings to evaluate Web sites.
  • Author
    Along with all the standard ways of identifying the credibility of the author (credentials, reputation, affiliation, etc.), sometimes simply finding the author of a Web page is a challenge. Usually, no author means no credibility, but sometimes a Web page is buried in the site and truncating the URL will give you the information you need. For more on URL’s see below. If you have found the author but cannot find any credentials, run a search on their name in a search engine (this only works if their name is unique).
  • Accuracy
    If you are unfamiliar with the topic it can be difficult to assess the accuracy. However, look for facts you do know and see if they are consistent with what you have learned, keeping in mind that some ‘facts’ are debated. See if sources of information are identified (citations) and look for typos and misspellings. Sloppiness in presentation suggests sloppiness in accuracy.
  • Objectivity
    Determining the objectivity of a Web site can use many of the same methods as determining the objectivity of any source - Is the language neutral? What is the authors intention? Who is the audience? However, there are a few more clues available with Web sites. Look for advertising and ask yourself what other sites this site is linking to. Is there a mission statement on the Web site? Is the information there to sell something to you that calls the objectivity into question? (For instance, a research study on the benefits of sunscreen on the Coppertone Web site).
  • Currency
    Look for the date when the information was posted or last updated. Once you have found a date, evaluate currency in the same way as with all information - Would it still be considered current for the area? If you can't find any dates anywhere a way to guess at the currency of the site is to try a couple of links and see how many are broken (i.e. don't take you anywhere or take you to other outdated sites). For information that needs to be current, avoid pages without dates no matter how useful the information. If the page is a primary text or another type of information where currency is not applicable, it is more important to evaluate the site using the other standards.
  • Coverage
    With Web sites it is often in your best interest to ask if the information offered is somehow unique and not offered anywhere else. If you can find similar material in another source that you know is credible, it is often better to go with the other source. The exception to this rule is when the information is offered by a credible source both through the Web and in paper format. For example, government information or journals that are offered online through the University Library.
  • Authenticity
    If the page you have found is primary source material, make sure it has not been altered and that it is complete. If it is a translation, check the quality of the translation - usually best accomplished by checking the credentials of the translator.
  • Usability
    Finally, if all the other criteria have been met, you may want to ask yourself how easy the site is to navigate, is it well organized and easy to use? If the Web site is going to be difficult to navigate and to retrieve the right information it will likely be a waste of time rather than the time saver the Internet is reputed to be, and can be when used correctly.


For more help in evaluating sources see Evaluating Resources (UC Berkeley).