Step 4: Evaluating Sources

Together, the context, text, and paratext reveal the large amount of information available in any source. Now you need to determine whether this information is sound and how it relates to other primary and secondary sources. This will prepare you to make your own argument.

Primary Sources

To make an argument using a primary source, remember that you can’t always take these sources at face value.  Instead, you first need to determine whether the information presented in that source is representative of a larger phenomenon or is an outlier. Both representative texts and outliers can be used to make interesting arguments, but the type of argument you make using these sources will be different. To determine what kind of argument is appropriate, compile what you have learned from the source’s context, paratext, and text and compare this information to the other primary and secondary sources you’re using.

Secondary Sources

Remember, secondary sources make arguments by relating primary sources to other data or research. In order to evaluate whether an argument is convincing, you need to know what the argument is and what evidence the author is using to support it. You already learned how to find an argument in Step 3; now you need to determine whether the evidence supports the author’s argument:

Identify the part of the argument the evidence is being used to support.

  • Why is it there?

Evaluate the evidence.

  • What methods is the author using to reach her conclusions?
  • Does the evidence show what the author claims it shows?

When authors enter a conversation with other secondary sources, you should assess whether the author is appropriately using this material.

  • If an author refers to someone else’s work, whether in agreement or disagreement, make note of it. This can help you identify what makes the work you’re reading unique and original, and how it relates to a larger conversation about a topic.
  • Sometimes, authors will explain where they agree or disagree with other authors more precisely in the footnotes than they do in the body of the text.

As you evaluate, you may realize that you strongly agree or disagree with another author’s interpretation of a primary or secondary source. This is not a bad thing–see Module III for strategies to help you build on another scholar’s work responsibly.

Alternately, you may realize that the author is making an incoherent argument. Sometimes bad organization, an over-reliance on specialized language (jargon), or irresponsible source use may plague texts written by professional scholars. Don’t lose heart. You can use your time with these texts to identify things you don’t want to do in your own work.

There are two quizzes following this section that will help you to practice with primary and secondary sources. You can go here to take Quiz 1, or skip straight to Quiz 2.