It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a game, planning your next character, or researching a time period to provide art for an adventure module. All these things require research. No matter what, there are five categories to keep in mind to help you evaluate your sources.
Who is the author of the source material? What training or experience do they have? If their expertise hinges on their academic background, what degrees or certifications do they have? Does the institution this person attended have accreditation during this person’s graduation period? A university could have accreditation pulled from a program long after people graduated while it was still a creditable one. Determining if/when accreditation was bestowed or revoked is some necessary legwork. Some people may have an honorary degree, which can be a testament to the work that expert has conducted. But not all experts need or require an academic credential. Apprenticeships, self-teaching, internships, lifelong learning, experts can and do come from a dizzying array of backgrounds. It’s up to you to research their work and credentials, and decide if you think what they have to say is accurate. An author may have ties to professional associations, but not all of those are created equal. Do a little legwork and determine if they’re “pro” organizations with specific documentation requirements, or a networking club.
Is this material published by a professional organizations publishing arm? Is it a trade publication? What else does their publisher put out? Does this material fit with other things they publish? Is it an experiment on their part to publish this? Why would this publisher publish this material? Are they owned by other companies? The authority of the author is important, but the status of the publisher also matters. This is also assuming the material wasn’t published by the author. In the case of self-publication, authority questions about author and publisher still stand, you just have to apply all the questions you have to the same person.
How much author or publisher bias is present in the material? Are they transparent about their goals concerning the material? Are they advocating for something? Informing the audience? Explaining something? None of these things are inherently better than the other, but you need to discern which one is going on, and if they’re being honest to the best of their ability about it. When you evaluate a resource for bias, you may find a number of unconscious biases in someone’s work. Language choices matter, but not everyone realizes what their choices say or mean to others. If the subject material is controversial, are both sides of the controversy presented in the material? How well-presented are arguments and points of evidence in the author’s work? I personally feel that the notion of pure, 100% objectivity is a myth. But how the author deals with their conscious biases says a lot about their work.
Do the illustrations, photographs, charts, video, sound, or reproduced images enhance or detract from this material? Is anything grainy or distorted because of lack of skill?
How well edited is it?
When edited badly
- Photos can look unappealing or inexpertly composed
- Text could badly organized, grammar and spelling issues may be present in excess
- Data and charts may be poorly captioned, or even list incorrect figures
- Audio and video can be rendered nearly or actually unusable
Excellent editing makes great work shine. Bad editing, or a lack of any editing, does the opposite.
If you’re evaluating a web page as a resource, UC Berkeley some basic guidelines of extra things to consider for web-based resources.
When was it published? Has it been updated in a new edition? Does your research need historic data, or the newest numbers you can get hold of? Resources available only in a certain period? Information is constantly updated now, and research is always finding out new information. That applies to historical data as well, including population records, the details of ancient wars, our study of science, everything we could feasibly be interested in. It doesn’t hurt to check if research has been updated about historic events.
Is the material relevant to your needs? Is it academic? Non-academic? Is it a primary source? Secondary? Bibliographic in nature? You may need resources of all those types, or only one. Often the relevancy changes throughout phases of your research.
No matter your project, I wish you well on search for well-thought knowledge. Happy hunting.
What are your favorite tips for research? Share your Google tricks, advice for surviving JSTOR, and guidelines for archival wizardry in the comments.