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Evaluating Secondary Sources

How to use scholarly sources created after the time under study

Published onDec 25, 2020
Evaluating Secondary Sources

Secondary sources describe and/or analyze information that was originally presented in primary sources. In most cases, this means that the author did not participate in the event. 

For the purposes of this course, when we talk about secondary sources, we mean scholarly secondary sources. A secondary source is scholarly if it has gone through peer-review, “which is a lengthy editing and review process performed by scholars in the field to check for quality and validity.”1 The best way to determine whether a source is scholarly, is to investigate the journal or publisher. For additional tips, check out the USC Library Research Guide “What are Scholarly and Non-Scholarly Sources:”

To evaluate scholarly secondary sources, answer the following questions.

What is the author’s topic?

  • On which event, issue, institution, phenomenon, and/or person does the author focus?

  • In which historical period did the subject of the essay exist or take place?

  • In which geographical area did the subject of the essay exist or take place?

What is the author’s project?

  • What research question does the essay address and/or what problem does it attempt to solve?

What is the author’s thesis?

  • What is the answer to the author’s research question or the solution to the problem that they pose?

What are the components of the author’s argument?

  • What claim(s) does the author develop and support in making their argument?

  • Does the author explain the connection between each of these claims and the thesis?

  • How thoroughly do they explain that connection?

How well does the author support their claims?

  • On what kinds of evidence does the author rely?

  • Where does this evidence come from?

  • How reliable are the sources of this evidence?

  • How much evidence does the author offer in support of each of their claims?

  • Are some claims better supported than others; that is, does the author offer more evidence for some claims than for others? If so, which ones?

  • Does the author discuss the relevance of the evidence to each of their claims?

  • What is the effect on your understanding of the argument when they do so?

Does the author address counter-arguments and/or alternative hypotheses?

  • Does the author refer to points of view different from their own?

  • If so, do they explain these alternate views?

  • Do they support them with evidence and/or explain how the same evidence can support both the thesis and the alternative views?

  • What reason(s) does the author give when explaining why their claims are stronger than other scholars’ claims?

Overall, how persuasive do you find the author’s argument?

  • Based on your analysis of the argument’s components, how well has the author convinced you that their point of view is correct, or at least plausible?

  • If you are not persuaded, what is the basis for your skepticism?

  • What else would the author have to do to convince you?

  • What other kinds of information might you need to fully assess the strength of the author’s argument?

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