Whenever you receive information, for whatever purpose, you should be evaluating its reliability before you believe it, use it, or repeat it. The need to evaluate information sources is more obvious when you have a project due in a short time and you are faced with hundreds or thousands of books, articles, and other potential sources of information. You cannot possibly read them all, so in the process of selecting information sources for your research project you need to evaluate which will be the best.
There are many ways to evaluate information. The more experienced the researcher is in a field, the easier it will be to make evaluative judgements about information and to decide whether it is suitable for use in your research project. For students and researchers new to the field of Canadian politics and government this process is more difficult. One way to start can be to use only sources recommended by experts: books on reading lists, in selective, evaluative bibliographies, or in the recommended reading lists of textbooks and subject guides. However, most research topics will require branching out further. Link to the following for some of the tools and techniques you can use to help you evaluate information and sources of information:
Evaluating Information: Books
Critical thinking is essential when searching for research materials and while reading them. Books are generally more reliable sources for research than many other kinds of material, as they cost so much to produce and usually have not only an author, but also editors and publishers to ensure their quality. There are, however, different kinds of publishers and different reasons for publishing. Book reviews can help you select appropriate books to use, but your own critical judgement will also be required. Critical reading involves questioning (e.g. How does the author know this? Are the statements made supported by fact or are they interpretations or opinion? Are there obvious biases or are narrow perspectives limiting the author's conclusions? etc.). Readers should be wary of logical fallacies (conclusions that don't follow from the arguments made), statements or conclusions based on assumptions, speculation, insufficient evidence, inaccurate use of statistics, and other errors.
Read the title, sub-title, if any, and as much other information as possible to determine the main topic(s) of the book, and for clues on its scope, orientation, and limitations. In a bibliography, the title may be all you have to go on. In a library catalogue there should be subject headings assigned to the book. In some online systems (or if you can look at the actual book) read the table of contents, the introduction, preface, book jacket blurb, and any reviews or quotes about the book. (Be aware of bias on publisher blurbs - they are written to sell the book.)
Who is the author, publisher, or creator of the work? What are their credentials or qualifications, their background, experience or connection with the topic? (You may not be able to answer these questions quickly and easily.) Have they written other books on the topic? Is the book frequently quoted or included in the bibliographies of other books or on recommended reading lists? Does the publisher frequently appear on recommended reading lists? Was the book reviewed by subject specialists, e.g. in a discipline-specific journal? Does the author rely on authoritative sources? Check the bibliography, footnotes, reference notes or endnotes for the kinds of sources used.
What is the publication or copyright date? Is the date appropriate for the topic? Has the book been revised? Are there several editions? What are the dates of the sources listed in the book's bibliography?
Is the work relatively unbiased, balanced, objective? Why was it written? Is there a stated purpose, specific audience, or other goal mentioned? Does the subject seem to be treated equally and fairly? Does it give different sides of the issue? Are opposing sides even mentioned? Are the arguments based on fact or opinion? Are facts properly cited? What kinds of books does the publisher normally publish? Some publishers specialize in books of a certain viewpoint. If it is a university press the book is likely to be scholarly and relatively unbiased.
Book reviews written by subject specialists can be a useful tool for finding out quickly whether a book is considered a "good" book on your topic, for example, whether it adds something new to the topic or presents information in a useful way. Reading a review before you read the book can help you pick out the main points more easily. You can also use (and cite) the opinions of the reviewer in your research.
A good review will place the book in context, comparing it to others on the topic and pointing out any special features or arguments made. The best reviews for research purposes are written by experts in the field, and are usually found in scholarly journals. Excellent reviews of some more popular political books may also be found in mainstream journals and magazines.
TIP: Beware of reviews written by someone connected with the publication or sale of the book (e.g. bookseller, publisher, author), or by people who are not necessarily experts or even knowledgeable about the topic or the field (e.g. Amazon provides "customer reviews").
Book reviews can be found by searching a book review index, article indexes and databases, and some booksellers' websites. The following are some of the most useful sources for finding reviews of books on contemporary Canadian politics and government:
Book Review Digest. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1905 -- . Monthly. Also available online.
This publication provides excerpts of selected critical reviews from periodicals published in the U.S., Canada and U.K. The print version is organized in alphabetical order by author's last name, with a title/subject index in the back.
Print cumulative author/title indexes: 1905-1974, 1975-1984, 1985-1994.
Canadian Book Review Annual. Ed. by Joyce M. Wilson.1975 - 2012. CBRAonline: 1978-2012: https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/search
Not just an index, this source also includes complete 200-400 word evaluative reviews written by subject specialists. Covers English-language books published by Canadians in Canada. The searchable online database includes reviews from 1978 to 2012.
CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. Middletown, Conn: Association of College and Research Libraries. 1964 - . Monthly with annual cumulated index. Also available online.
This publication includes brief reviews by subject specialists for university-level English-language academic books. Includes some Canadian books, but coverage is mostly American.
Combined Retrospective Index to Book Reviews in Scholarly Journals, 1886-1974. Arlington, VA: Carrollton Press, 1979-82. 15 vols.
The first 12 volumes of this 15-volume set contain references to reviews from 459 scholarly journals in history, political science and sociology arranged alphabetically by author. The last three volumes are the title index.
Most indexes and databases that contain or index journal and newspaper articles will also be useful for finding book reviews. In print indexes like the Canadian Periodical Index look for the heading "Book Reviews" and entries in alphabetical order by the book's author. In online indexes type in the title and/or author's name and combine this with the keywords "book review" or "book reviews" depending on the database, or limit by article type or format, if possible.
See Finding Information: Analysis & Reports in the Popular Press and Finding Information: Current Events/News for details on recommended indexes and databases for Canadian government and politics.
The Canadian site for amazon.com, the largest online retailer, sells many books currently in print and some older books provided by used book sellers. Information provided on books may include the book cover, brief statements from a published review, customers' reviews, descriptions written by the author, table of contents, and sometimes a short excerpt or selected passages from the book.
NOTE: "Editorial reviews" are more reliable than "customer reviews" which can be contributed by anyone, not necessarily people who are objective or knowledgeable about the topic.
Books in Print with Book Reviews - Canadian Edition. 1967 - . U. of Toronto Press, Micromedia/ProQuest. Online: 2000 - .
This database includes over 2 million books and videos either published in Canada or published in the U.K. and U.S. and distributed in Canada. Full text book reviews are included for some titles.
Chapters/Indigo Bookstore. https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/
Described as Canada's biggest bookstore. Information on books may include blurbs on content, publisher's review, details on the author and selected quotes from other reviewers.
Renouf Books. https://www.renoufbooks.com/home.aspx
This bookstore does not provide reviews, but specializes in publications of the Canadian government, research institutes, international organizations and other bodies not well covered by academic or commercial review sources. Books can be searched by keyword or browsed by organization name. Information provided includes the publisher's blurb describing the book and in some cases also table of contents, and details on the authors.
When searching for journal or newspaper articles to use in a research paper the indexes used and the publications in which the articles appear can provide you with the first clues for evaluation. Here are some tips on evaluating journals and newspapers, and the articles found in them:
Journals and Journal Articles:
Select a journal index that covers scholarly journals. Some general indexes allow you to limit your search to academic, scholarly, or peer reviewed/refereed articles (article manuscripts are screened by experts in the field before publication).
To Evaluate Journals:
The same criteria apply as for books. See the TACO Checklist. Other questions to ask: What kind of journal is it? Is it a scholarly journal? If not, is it appropriate for your research?
For help in answering these questions you can:
1. Check it against the list of key journals for Canadian government and politics in Finding Information: Scholarly Research in Academic Journals and the list of key journals in the Special Topics pages, if applicable.
2. Look the journal title up in a directory of periodicals:
Ulrich's International Periodicals Directory. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1932 - . 3-4 vols. Annual. Online version: Ulrichsweb updated weekly.
Journals are listed by subject with the publisher's address, a statement on the type of publication it is, if it is refereed, and a list of the indexes that cover it. Intended to be comprehensive.
Magazines for Libraries. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1969 -- . Irregular. Available online through ProQuest.
Not comprehensive, but lists and describes "the best and most useful" magazines and journals for school, public, and university libraries. It indicates whether the intended audience is academic or the general population, and has a descriptive and evaluative review of each journal. Note: Includes Canadian titles but the emphasis is on U.S. journals.
3. Evaluate the journal yourself:
Read the inside cover: the preface, introduction, etc. or the online equivalent (most journals, whether available online or not, will have a publisher's homepage on the Internet describing the journal). There should be some information on who the publishers are and the scope and purpose of the journal. Is there an editorial board? What are the qualifications of the editors or editorial board? Does the journal provide peer review? How is the journal funded? Note the style and format of the articles. Some will have a mix of articles including opinion pieces and scholarly articles, so each article you consider using has to be evaluated individually as well.
Beware of predatory journals: If the journal is open access (i.e. freely available on the Internet), there is a possibility that some of the information on the journal's website is misleading or false. Predatory journals are ones that charge a fee to publish articles without providing the appropriate editorial services or peer review promised. One step is to see if the journal is included in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), a list of quality, peer-reviewed open access journals. For more details on evaluating open access journals see: Evaluating OA Journals: https://libraryguides.mta.ca/openaccess/evaluatingOAJournals
TIP: Using an article database to find journal articles will help you to avoid predatory journals.
To Evaluate Articles:
The TACO Checklist given under the Evaluating Books tab applies for articles as well. Some tips specific to articles:
Academic articles frequently have an abstract describing the article, an introduction, and a conclusion. When available, read these carefully. When using a periodical index or database to find articles, note the subject headings or indexing terms assigned to the article. The number of pages and the "article type" description can help in deciding if the article will treat the subject in enough depth.
In academic articles the author's affiliation and/or position is usually given at the beginning or the end of the article. You can do a quick search by the author's name to see what, if any other articles the author has written. Some article databases, as well as citation databases and Google Scholar, allow you to see how often the author has been cited by others in other academic articles within their scope of coverage.
Be aware of the coverage dates of the journal index or database you use. You may have to update the search (or back-date it) using other tools.
Look for bias-free language, properly cited sources, and all the other points listed for evaluating books, but apply these to the journal as well as the article.
Note that news articles usually do not include sources for the facts, statements or statistics supplied and therefore cannot be relied upon for most academic purposes without further research.
Some online news services such as newswires and news websites have reports on events as they are happening without much or any editing, fact-checking or corroboration. More care is generally taken with printed newspapers.
Tips on evaluating articles in newspapers and on news sites:
1. Get information about the newspaper:
See the "About" link on papers that have a website. See how the paper is described in a reference source such as Wikipedia, or:
Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1990 - . Annual.
This directory lists U.S. and Canadian newspapers, news magazines and other news media with a brief note on the type of paper it is, the publisher and editor, address and website URL, circulation figures, etc.
2. Make sure you are aware of the type of article it is (opinion piece, editorial, letter to the editor, humour column, news report, etc.) and use it accordingly.
3. Get information on the journalist/author: See the byline or the statement at the end of the article, if any. Search the paper's website or more widely if needed, to find more information about the author and to see what else they may have written on the subject, or others.
Fake News Guide. By Jeff Lilburn, Mount Allison University. https://libraryguides.mta.ca/fake_news
See also: Fact-Checking tab.
Evaluating Information: Websites
The main points listed for evaluating books and articles also apply to evaluating information found on websites. The following are some additional things to consider:
Knowing whether a website, or text found on a website, will be on topic and appropriate can be difficult if it was found using a search engine. This is not surprising given that keyword searching finds all instances of the words you enter. Given the wide variety of information on the Internet, the many different contexts in which the same words can be used, the fact that search engines present web pages out of context, and that many web page developers do not include identifying information on their pages, searching the Internet is not a recommended strategy for most research. One way to minimize these problems is to use the Advanced Search features of search engines to include keywords for context, limiting by type of site or document, etc. Starting a search with a subject guide or research guide created by academic librarians can also be helpful.
Is an author given? Is there an email address or other contact information for the author? or the website as a whole? Is the author affiliated with, or does the site belong to a government body, a university or research institute? Is there a logo, banner, header or footer that indicates an organization responsible for the text? (Look for a "Contact Us" or "About" link.) If none of this is clear, the information should be suspect. Check the URL: you can back up to the URL's path to the main address to see whose server the information is on and how they link to the information. Watch for domain name endings that indicate the type of site: e.g. .com = commercial, .org, .gov, .edu, although the last two do not apply to Canadian websites. Even if the author or authoring body is identified, chances are the information on the site has not been peer reviewed, and it may not have gone through any kind of editorial process, so should be used with caution. To learn more about the author or the organization responsible for information on a website, search for information about them from other sources. Organizations such as think tanks that publish research on politics and government may describe themselves in ways that can be misleading.
Is there a date given for when the text was written? A revision date? Is there a copyright date for the website as a whole? Or for the relevant section? Note that when limiting a Google search by date, often what you get is the date a text was posted online, not the date it was created. If no date is found, check for clues in the text, check the dates of sources cited, if any links are still working, etc. It may also be worth searching for the text by title and author to see if another version can be found, or if it can be found on a different site that provides more context including the date.
As with articles in journals, evaluate the objectivity of the text you are viewing as well as of the website that hosts it. What is the purpose of the site? Is it intended for educational or research purposes, commercial or entertainment purposes? Advertising banners, links to companies and products, especially if unrelated to the topic of the text, may indicate the site exists just to promote products. Domain names ending in .com are commercial sites, but not all commercial sites have that ending. Many think tanks claim to be non-partisan. Read through the description of the organization, its mandate, goals, and how they are funded and search online for how others describe the organization. Scan the other information on the site to see if a bias or slant is evident in what is covered and how.
Criteria for Evaluating Information. Otis College of Art and Design. https://otis.libguides.com/Criteria_for_Evaluating_Information
Evaluating Web Sources. Mount Allison University. https://libraryguides.mta.ca/research_help/research_tips/evaluating_web_sources
See also the "Fact-Checking" tab.
Government Information on the Internet:
Canadian government Internet sites do not have the .gov ending that the American government sites do. The official homepage of the federal government and its departments since around 2013 is https://canada.ca. Most federal government sites have either the .gc.ca ending (gc= Government of Canada), or are on the official canada.ca site. All federal sites are supposed to have the Canadian flag on the homepage, and follow certain standards. However, not all government agencies follow these guidelines to the letter, and some Internet sites have mixed funding/support or contributing members, sometimes a combination of government and private organizations, so the appearance of government sites can still vary a great deal. Look for a contact name or other statement of responsibility for the site as a whole and/or for the information you are using (they may be different).
The official homepage of each provincial and territorial government follows one of two standard formats: https://www.gov.[2 letters for province].ca (as in www.gov.mb.ca for Manitoba), or https://www.[provincename].ca (as in https://www.alberta.ca). New Brunswick is an exception with a URL that reflects the fact that it is the only officially bilingual province in the country: https://www.gnb.ca. The websites of most provincial and territorial government agencies will be recognizable by their URL, although some exceptions exist.
Municipal governments, especially in small towns, may not have an "official" government site. Some have information posted on the websites of the local chamber of commerce, the economic development corporation, tourism or cultural organizations. It can be difficult to determine what exactly is government information in some of these cases.
Government information, whether in a printed publication or on the Internet, is generally factual and reliable. As with all sources however, beware of political bias. Government authored reports are unlikely to be critical of their own policies. The information provided on websites will have been vetted to ensure it aligns with the government's policies and ideology.
Evaluating Information: Writing Book Reviews & Annotated Bibliographies
The critical skills described in this section on evaluating information can be applied quickly and automatically whenever researching a topic, but if taken a step further and done thoroughly, they can be used to write book reviews and annotated bibliographies. These can be ends in themselves, for the use of other researchers, or they can make up a part of your own research project.
How to Write a Book Review:
A critical review of a scholarly book provides information about the book including statements about the author's thesis and how it is developed, and an evaluation of how well it succeeds. The following are some short guides that provide pointers on how to write a good critical book review:
The Book Review or Article Critique. By Margaret Procter, Writing Support, University of Toronto. https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/types-of-writing/book-review/
Write a Book Review. McLaughlin Library, University of Guelph. https://guides.lib.uoguelph.ca/BookReview
Write Your Own Book Review. University of Waterloo Libraries. https://subjectguides.uwaterloo.ca/c.php?g=695514&p=4931758
Writing a Book Review. Purdue Online Writing Lab. Purdue University. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/common_writing_assignments/book_reviews.html
Writing Critical Book Reviews. Student Academic Success Services, Queen's University. https://sass.queensu.ca/onlineresource/topics/writing-critical-book-reviews/
How to Write an Annotated Bibliography:
A critical or evaluative annotated bibliography is a list of citations to books, articles, and other resources with a brief paragraph describing and evaluating each source. The following are some short guides on how to write a critical annotated bibliography:
How to Write Annotated Bibliographies. Memorial University Libraries. https://www.library.mun.ca/researchtools/guides/writing/annotated_bibl/
Write an Annotated Bibliography. McLaughlin Library, University of Guelph. https://guides.lib.uoguelph.ca/c.php?g=130961&p=855768
Writing an Annotated Bibliography. By Deborah Knott, New College Writing Centre, University of Toronto. http://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/types-of-writing/annotated-bibliography/
Fact-Checking Sites and Tips:
Canadian Fact-Checking Sites:
FactsCan: Canada's Political Fact-Checker. http://factscan.ca/
An independent and nonpartisan non-profit group that fact-checks claims made by Canadian federal politicians and other public figures. They follow the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles.
How To Fact-Check:
Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking. By Brooke Borel. University of Chicago Press, 2016. 192 p.
Provides tips and practical advice on how to check different kinds of facts.
FactCheckNI Toolkit. https://factcheckni.org/
FactCheckNI is an independent, non-profit organization and a member of the International Fact-Checking Network. The toolkit is full of short articles on how to check facts, including on how to spot misleading videos, images, and poll figures.