Responsible conduct of research includes the critical evaluation of sources, and respecting the rights of the creators of any sources used in the research.
When you have found the publications that you think will be useful to you, it is time for their critical evaluation. The purpose of source analysis is to draw conclusions about the reliability of the author of the information and the information itself, as well as their worth as source material.
The level of reliability varies according to the type of source; the level is high in doctoral theses and articles that have been refereed for academic publication, while the level is not very high in e.g. articles in popular magazines and web pages. Scientific journals use peer review to ensure the scientific quality of articles. Peer review consists of several steps where independent experts assess whether the manuscript is fit for publication, provide suggestions for improvements and support the journal in deciding whether to publish or not.
In addition, it is preferable to use primary sources rather than secondary ones for e.g. theses.
You can consider how reliable the material is and how valuable the source by answering the following questions:
- What information does the author give about him/herself?
- Has the author published other works on the same subject?
- What is the author’s background organisation and what are its views on the subject?
- Who has funded or sponsored the research or publication?
- When was the material published / is it up to date?
- To whom is the material directed / does the material have a specific target audience?
- Does the material list sources used?
- Why has the material been made; what was the purpose of producing it and its academic goal?
- Is the material well-written and does the language contain the terminology appropriate for the subject?
- is the material comparable with other material on the same subject and to what you already know about the subject?
You need to be especially careful when analyzing sources on the open web; since the Internet is a channel that is open for everyone, the contents and their reliability are not necessarily checked at all. Take at least the following points into consideration when evaluating information from the open web:
- Reliability of the contents: how are the statements in the material argued and are any sources or links presented for checking the facts?
- Objectivity: where is the page located and who is in charge of the web site (a company, a government body, or e.g. a private individual). Keep in mind that the information on e.g. company web sites often contains advertising.
- Timeliness: find out at least when the page has been created and when it has last been updated.
You can read more about good academic practices in e.g. the research ethics guide by the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity, the Responsible Research site and the research-ethics portal Codex.