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Theological Research and Writing: 5. Evaluating Sources

A Guide to Cutting Edge Critical Thinking; Cutting Edge Research and Writing at BMATS

When you're finished here...

 Before you move on to the next page, you will:

  • Know how to evaluate a source based upon its Bibliographic characteristics.
  • Know how to evaluate a source based upon the quality and relevance of its content.

Using what you've learned already.

   Evaluating information sources involves using what you have already learned about research from this guide.  In particular, what you have learned about scholarly, popular and trade sources, and the nature of theological information will serve you well when evaluating a source.

When evaluating a source you are essentially asking:

  • ​What is its origin?
  • What is it about?
  • How is it relevant to my topic?


Evaluating a source's provenance.

What is its origin?

1.  Who is the author?

            a. What are the author’s credentials?  What is the author’s education level?  What position does he or she hold and at what institution?

            b. Is the author an expert in the subject of the book?  Has the author published on this topic before?  Is it the topic of his or her thesis or dissertation, or is it related to the position he or she holds?  A book on Genesis by a creation scientist may seem like a good idea, but probably isn’t.  An author may be the most celebrated pastor of the last half-century, but that does not make him an expert on the book of Revelation.

2.  Who is the Publisher?

            a. Does the publisher typically publish scholarly or popular works?  Is it a university press? University presses mostly publish scholarly works.

            b. Does the publisher typically publish in this subject area? Some publishers specialize in an area and are known for their publications in a field.

            c. What other authors does the publisher publish?  If the authors are scholars, the source is from a quality publisher of scholarly materials.

3.  When was the document published?

            a. What does the date of publication imply about the assumptions and conclusions of the author?  

            b. Is the subject of the book highly sensitive to the flow of time?  A manual on the use of media in the church from the 1970's is going to be out-dated, but a commentary on the book of Job from the same period will not be out-dated, though it may be superseded by a superior work.

4.  Which edition are you looking at?

            a. Is the edition you have superseded by another? Newer editions often contain corrections or amendments reflecting the author's further accumulation of knowledge.

            b. Is the edition you have abridged or revised?  Go with what seems to be superior and common.  You don’t want your professor looking at the wrong pages while grading your paper and looking up your references!

5.  If it is an article, who is the publisher?

            a. Is it a scholarly journal or a popular periodical?

            b. Is the article signed by the author, with the author's credentials clearly visible?

            c. Is the journal peer-reviewed?

Evaluating a source's content

Purpose: Is the purpose of the work academic, that is, was it written for scholars and students in order to increase the reader’s knowledge?  Or, is the purpose to persuade, entice, or sell something to the reader?

Audience: Who is the intended audience?  Was it written for scholars and students or the average reader?  How technical is it?  Technical works assume a proficiency in the skills related to the study of theology, such as ancient language skills, familiarity with important theologians, or familiarity with Bible backgrounds.

Objectivity: Does the author present reasonable assumptions for the subject, and does he or she present reasonable conclusions supported by evidence?  Does the author acknowledge other points of view and deal with potential objections in a reasonable way?  Is the writer impartial, or does the author try to manipulate your emotions?

Research: Are the information sources referenced in the work appropriate for the subject at hand?  If the most prestigious source referenced in the book or article is “Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary of the English Language,” you should find something else.  Theological sources should reference the primary documents being studied and other theological works from credentialed scholars, more than any other kind of source.  Quality scholarly works discuss other scholarly works and deal with the conclusions thoroughly, whereas biased works avoid discussing works which disagree with the author’s conclusions.

Writing style: How is the information presented?  Is it well organized in parts and chapters?  Does the presentation and organization help you follow the author’s argument?  A popular, non-scholarly style is to present the material in short paragraphs with pithy or eye-catching sub-headings.  Such a style can be used to manipulate readers.

Relevance to your topic.

   A source’s relevance to your topic will become evident as you review it, but the sooner you can identify a source as relevant to your research, the better.  Follow these tips to ensure that you are using resources that are relevant to your topic.

1.  Sources relevant to your topic will treat your topic with a significant amount of discussion. 

   Look at the table of contents to see if a chapter is dedicated to your topic.  Investigating your topic ahead of time will help you identify sources with chapters touching on your topic.  If there isn’t a chapter on your topic, check the index to see if you can find a sub-section.  If a book only has a passing reference to your topic, you should find a more relevant source.  Primary sources will offer smaller pieces of relevant information, however.

2.  Relevant sources will reference other relevant sources. 

   A scholar must pull information from other sources in order to offer evidence for conclusions on a topic.  Always look out for scholarly communication between sources!

3. DO NOT try to force a source to be relevant to your topic. 

   Students are tempted to do this by pulling a seemingly relevant quote from a source and plugging it in to their discussion, even though the source does not sufficiently treat the topic in any significant way.  Typically, students do this because the paper is due soon and they have to have a certain number of sources to meet their professor’s requirements.  Start earlier and evaluate your resources before you take them home, download them, or print them out so that you do not get stuck!

4. Read journal articles before deciding to use them.

   Students often neglect to fully read a journal article before they decide that "it will do."  It is quite unpleasant to be up late before the paper is due, trying to remember why you selected this article that, apart from being irrelevant, seems to be just plain stupid.  Avoid this turmoil by reading a journal article until you can either accept it or reject it.