How to Evaluate a Book or Article Without Reading It
You've found it. Now what?
Quick steps for examining articles
- Read the abstract. If there isn't one, read the opening paragraph, instead.
Why bother? It should provide an overview of the author's main points and indicate the author's purpose. If there is an abstract, that alone is a good clue the article is not pop reading.
- Read the summary or concluding paragraph.
Why bother? It reviews the author's main points and will give you an idea of the coverage of the material.
- Browse the article, reading at least several paragraphs in sections that appear most directly related to your topic.
Why bother? A quick reading of the paragraphs will help you observe the author's findings, opinions, and style. It will also help you determine how relevant the material is to what you are trying to research. The language may give you a clue how easy it will be to understand (and how much time you may have to spend pouring over it). If you can find headings for Methods, Results, and Discussion, you can determine that the article is an empirical study.
Quick steps for examining books
- Read the preface or introduction or the first few paragraphs of the first chapter.
Why bother? They usually let you know right away the author's purpose.
- Read the summary or conclusion or browse the last chapter.
Why bother? It reviews the author's main points and will give you an idea of the coverage of the material. Since it is not a novel, it is actually a good idea to find out how it turns out.
- Skim chapter and section headings and the index.
Why bother? This will give you an overview of the material. In the index, you can check whether or not any words or phrases match those that are related to your topic.
- Browse the book, reading at least several paragraphs in sections that appear most directly related to your topic.
Why bother? A quick reading of the paragraphs will help you observe the author's findings, opinions, and style. It will also help you determine how relevant the material is to what you are trying to research. The language may give you a clue how easy it will be to understand (and how much time you may have to spend pouring over it).
Is that all there is?
What's the point?
What's in it for me?
Once you determine that it is relevant, then you need to figure out the quality of its content. Remember that you need to find several sources that represent several different points of view. Just by looking at a source, you should be able to determine quite a few important things, but to evaluate any one source well it will also be necessary to look at several different sources and look beyond just what you read on the page.
- From the language used and arguments made, you can probably have a good idea whether or not the author is being objective and reasonable. Clever writers can hide their biases, and all writers will have different points of view, but their arguments need to be clearer stated, reasonable, and well researched. Authors should explain what evidence they have found to support their conclusions.
- Although it isn't easy to separate fact from opinion, it is important to try. Some people argue that there are no "facts," only someone's interpretation of facts. To verify what has been written, it is important to compare one source with another. Do they agree or support each other? Even if the authors' ideas are new, do they seem in line with other things you have read? Does it appear that the authors are avoiding or omitting information that doesn't support their arguments. Unless an author has something new to share, there is little point in writing, but if what is new radically departs from everything else you have read, you need to analyze the conclusions even more carefully.
- Other questions to ask are how old the information is and whether, in that field of study, being up-to-date is directly related to being accurate.
Who wants to read this?
If you can figure out who the intended audience is you will know what type of source it is. In determining whether a source is popular or scholarly, you can better tell how useful it will be to your research. Popular sources are principally written to entertain and inform a general reader, but also to make somebody some money. Scholarly sources are intended as a means of researchers or professionals to share research and exchange ideas in quite a detailed way. Authors of scholarly, peer-reviewed articles often have to pay money, not receive money, when their articles are published.
The difference is important for a couple reasons. A popular source may be easier to read, but to adequately address many topics of research, a certain level of complexity in writing may be required. Talented writers can better make in depth topics easier to understand, but to simplify a topic to the level that an eighth grader can understand, important aspects are probably being left out. If the source was written to entertain, it may not have much research value. If the authors are advocating a particular viewpoint, it should be backing up the arguments with facts and documentation, not some glossy language.
- If the source is a book, check who the publisher is. As an undergraduate, you probably don't know the quality of diffferent publishers, but some are well known for publishing in certain academic disciplines and have better reputations than other. One easy thing you can do is check if the publisher is a university press or an scholarly society. That doesn't guarantee the quality of the material, but it does assure you it is an academic publication.
- If the source is a periodical, is it a magazine or journal? If you need help in figuring out what kind of periodical it is, see this chart explaining the different types of periodicals.
- For some research projects, it is important to use primary materials. Primary sources are raw materials, such as original materials. In sciences and social sciences they are often the reports of original research projects that are found in scholarly articles or papers delivered at conferences. Secondary sources are comments on or interpretations of or discussions about primary sources.For more on comparing these sources, see
- Knowing that an article came from an scholarly journal, is not enough. Try to figure out what kind of article it is. In the same academic journal, there may be literature reviews, summary articles, editorials, book reviews, and empirical studies. A literature review may be valuable for introducing you to a topic and suggesting other articles to read. A summary article may provide a short introduction to a lengthier research article or series of articles. Editorials may alert you to some controversies related to your topic. A book review may discuss the broader subject and key issues in the course of reviewing the book. If you have been asked by a professor to consider some primary data, however, it is an empirical study that you will want to get your hands on.
Who says so?
It is important to determine an author's credentials, but what does that mean? Perhaps a simpler question would be, "What do you know about the author, and why should I believe this person when she or he is writing about this topic?" Unfortunately just because a person is writing about a subject does not qualify him or her as an expert. Does this person have any academic background or other expertise that qualifies her or him to write in this field? Some journalists explore one type of topic for a long time and become extremely knowledgeable about it, but others are staff writers who may be given an new assignment because she or he is available, not because of any prior knowledge of the topic.
- To find out about an author, the first place to look is the source itself. Books often include some biographical information about the author in an introduction or preface or at the back of the book. If you are used to finding that sort of Information on a book jacket, unfortunately, college libraries typically throw book jackets away. Scholarly journal articles normally provide as a minimum the academic or instituational affiliation of the authors, but most often that minimal information is all you will get. Magazines may provide a biographic sketch of that issue's contributors in the front or back, but if you are reading the article online, that won't help you. The same goes for a list of the publication's staff writers.
- One simple way to find out what else the authors have written is to check the online catalog and periodical databases. Numbers of books and articles written doesn't necessarily mean much, so also check what subjects they have tackled and what kind of publications they are found in.
- Book reviews might provide some background information about authors, and they will certainly let you know what others think of them.
- Here also is where web sources, such as Amazon.com, can be very useful. If author's are cited often, that can be a good sign of their authority. Make sure, however, of both of what is being said positively and negatively.