Information Literacy and Source Documentation



Students often get a checklist of requirements when they get their first major research assignment. Their professor might ask them to use a certain number of books or a certain number of scholarly journal articles. They may be told “don’t use websites” or “use no more than 2 websites.” Those rules can be confusing if you don’t know how to find and effectively use each type of source!

There are many types of formats, but we’ll explore a few of the major types you are likely to encounter.

Scholarly Journals (Peer-Reviewed/Academic Journals)

Scholarly journals are also sometimes called “peer-reviewed” journals, and that is the easiest way to understand them. Many journals send articles to a group of the author’s peers (other experts in their field) to critique the article before it can be published. The reviewers may ask for revisions to the article, or they may even reject it completely.

Scholarly articles are written by experts and for experts. This doesn’t mean non-experts can’t read them, but it does mean they might use complicated, technical language, and they can be longer and occasionally challenging to read. However, it’s important to remember that as a student you are developing expertise, too! You may need to put in effort to read or understand scholarly articles, but as with any skill, the more you practice the more comfortable it will feel.

So why use scholarly articles?

  1. Quality control—peer-review process gives you some confidence in the quality of the information
  2. Written by experts—journals are where the scholarly conversation takes place and new knowledge is created
  3. Requirement—sometimes professors will require you to use scholarly articles

Generally, scholarly journals are considered the “gold standard” for academic research, and it’s expected in many disciplines that you become familiar with how to find and use journals.

Tip: Most databases will include a check box to limit your search to scholarly or peer-reviewed journal articles. If you want scholarly articles, search for this option in any tool you use!

After learning that scholarly articles can be more complicated, you may be wondering how to read them. The following link will take you to a video detailing elements typically found in scholarly articles, so you can leverage that knowledge to navigate the information.

Anatomy of a Scholarly Article, from North Carolina State University Libraries 

Shelves on the main floor of the Harper Library with magazines, journals, and LPs.

Popular Publications

Newspapers and magazines are generally considered popular publications. Examples include Time Magazine, the New York Times newspaper, Popular Science, etc. Articles are usually written by journalists/reporters and mostly avoid technical language or jargon—they’re written for the non-expert. That doesn’t mean the articles are bad or false, but they’re not original research and they don’t have a peer review process. Generally, articles in popular sources are reviewed by editors and fact checkers, not experts on the topic.

Popular articles tend to be shorter. They sometimes, but not always, have images like photographs, decorative illustrations, etc. Authors might not be listed, or if they are, those authors might not be experts in the subject of the article. Popular articles are usually written for the general public, so they use more accessible language non-experts can quickly understand, and they may have a more casual tone.

Sometimes, popular sources like magazines and newspapers will be great for your research, and other times you need to show that you are relying on experts to support your arguments by using scholarly articles. However, you might find popular publications less welcome, and maybe less useful, as you continue in your chosen career or field of study. In other words, as you become an expert yourself, you will probably need to rely more on resources written for other experts!

Tip: How do you know if an article you found is scholarly or popular? You can sometimes identify the format by simply glancing at the article. Scholarly/peer-reviewed articles tend to be much longer. They often have graphs, statistics, and data tables, but not usually many other types of images. Usually the author’s credentials will be listed, such as degrees they hold, institutions at which they work, etc. Scholarly articles also tend to use jargon and formal, technical language specific to that field. However, you can always ask a librarian for help if you’re unsure!

Trade Publications

Trade publications are written by and for people in a specific field. Unlike scholarly journals, though, they’re usually more focused on practical news, opinions, or other casual information rather than original research studies. Many professional associations, for instance, publish newsletters or magazines. Because they’re written for people in a specific field, they do sometimes use jargon and technical language, but not as much as you may find in scholarly journals.


The majority of the books are on the top floor of the Harper Library

Books provide detail and comprehensive coverage of topics that aren’t duplicated by other formats. Sometimes new student researchers avoid books because they think they’ll take too much time to read. However, books can be a great way to get a huge amount of information collected all in one place! You may only need to read a chapter or even a section, not the entire book. Use the Table of Contents (at the beginning of the book) or the Index (at the end of the book) to skip to just the portions that are most relevant. The Harper College Library also has a huge selection of ebooks you can access online at any time, meaning you don’t even have to travel to the Library to get them.

Tip: If you want a book you can access immediately, you can find ebooks in both the Harper College Library catalog and OneSearch. Both allow you to limit your search to ebooks. Explore the limiting options along the side of the search results in either tool, or ask a librarian for help. (You’ll need to log in with your Harper username and password to use some ebooks.)

Online Formats

“Online formats” can be confusing for some students, because currently most of the information you use for research is accessed online. For instance, scholarly journals, popular magazines, and even books can be accessed through library websites. Moreover, you can find some scholarly journals, magazines, and ebooks for free using a search engine. The important thing to consider isn’t where you accessed the information (e.g., digitally vs. in print) but what type of information it is and who created it (e.g., a scholarly article created by a researcher vs. a news article created by a journalist).

For our purposes, we’ll define online content as materials that are available freely online that don’t fall into one of the other categories above (e.g., scholarly journals, ebooks, etc.). There are lots of formats that could be put in this category, but here are some of the most common:

Blogs — Frequently updated websites that don’t necessarily require extensive technical skills and can be published by virtually anyone, often at no cost to themselves other than the time they devote to content creation. Usually marked by postings that indicate the date when each was written.

Online Videos — Short videos produced by anybody, with a lot of money or a little money. Common sites for these are YouTube and Vimeo. Videos can be for any purpose, including to educate, to entertain, to frustrate, to document, etc.

Podcasts — Digital audio files that are available for downloading, often by subscription. They can be produced by average people or, by large media companies, or anything in between.

Social Media — Sites or apps that allow users to connect with other users to share information and interact. Examples include TikTok and Twitter. Because sharing happens so quickly, both accurate and inaccurate information can spread rapidly and widely.

Websites — Digital items, each consisting of multiple pages produced by someone with at least basic technical skills or the ability to pay someone with technical skills. It can be difficult to differentiate between a website and any of the other online formats listed above, but in practice the difference isn’t particularly relevant.

In general, all online content is quicker and simpler to produce than more traditional formats, which is both a strength and a weakness. It means anyone can easily share information, but that means it’s also easier for people to share careless, incorrect, or even harmful material. You should think critically about all information you find, but you want to be extra careful with online information!

The Information Timeline

The information timeline (sometimes called the information cycle or lifecycle) is one way for us to think about how different kinds of publications provide different perspectives on a topic based on when they are published. Understanding the information timeline lets us know when we can expect information sources to appear in publication, and more broadly improves our understanding of the role each type of source plays in our research. Different formats of information, after all, have varying levels of research depth, credibility, and currency.

We can walk through an example–researching a specific terrorist attack on the United States. Below you will find some common information types and when they would normally become available. Be sure to click to expand each section to find out more about how this example might play out in real life.

Day of the Attack

Coverage may begin in:

  • Social media like Facebook or YouTube (information often begins appearing as the event itself is still in progress)
  • News websites
  • Broadcast media such as CNN

This breaking news content may:

  • Provide immediate information on the event
  • Lack much context and background information
  • Be fact-checked in a limited way, or not at all
  • Possibly have confused coverage and misreported facts
  • Still be an important way for people to understand the basics of what happened, connect with those directly or indirectly affected by the event, let people know if there is an ongoing threat, etc.
Day after the Attack

Coverage may begin in:

  • Newspapers

This news content may:

  • Provide more in-depth information than the earlier online or television reporting
  • Start providing context for the attacks, but in a limited way
  • Include additional fact-checking, though there will still be varying accuracy
  • Synthesize the reporting of the previous day
1-2 Weeks after the Attack

Coverage may begin in:

  • Popular magazines such as Time, Newsweek, etc.
  • Blogs, podcasts, and other in-depth news sites

This news content may:

  • Provide greater context to a story
  • Develop the background of a story in greater depth
  • Be written by journalists or experts such as national security specialists or others with relevant expertise
  • Still not be extensively sourced
  • Provide more robust analysis than what is found in newspapers and social media
6+ Months after the Attack

Coverage may begin in:

  • Scholarly journals
  • Trade publications

This news content may:

  • Provide peer reviewed, discipline-specific research relevant to the attacks
  • Be written by experts
  • Strive to be formally objective
  • Include original research and analysis
  • Be thoroughly resourced and include relevant context
  • Be very narrowly focused, either to specific research interests (scholarly journals) or the concerns of a specific industry (trade publications)
About a Year after the Attack

Coverage may begin in:

  • Books

This news content may:

  • Provide in-depth research and analysis
  • Synthesize all the previous news sources and consolidate findings
  • Include extensive footnotes, background information, context, and analysis

While information doesn’t always follow this timeline, understanding this example can help you decide how to approach your research. For example, if you’re researching something that happened recently, you may not find scholarly articles or books on that specific event (though you might be able to find some on similar events and relate them to your own topic).

You also want to think about what type of information you need and search accordingly. For instance, if you want eyewitness accounts, social media and news sites/newspapers would be the most obvious choices, and you can target your searches to those formats. If you want in-depth analysis however, you would be better off with a journal article or book. Knowing what you need and what type of source might have that information will let you design the best search strategy, choose the best search tools, and get more relevant and efficient results.


Amaya is writing an argumentative essay for her English 101 class. She wants to investigate the impact gun violence has on survivors. She decides to use a YouTube video from someone identifying themselves as a gun violence survivor as a source in her essay. The video is self-published by the creator, not affiliated with any larger organization.

What are some of the reasons Amaya might use a video like this as a source? What are some of the problems with using such a source?

Do you think Amaya should have used this video as a source? Why or why not?

Where to Search

You can get help from staff at the desk on the Harper Library’s main floor

Once you know what format of information you need, you need to know what type of search tools contain what formats of information. For example, let’s say your professor requires at least one scholarly article for your essay. A Google search is unlikely to connect you with many (free) scholarly articles, so it might not be not be the best place to start searching. The library catalog is also a poor place to find scholarly articles, though it might be ideal for finding books and films. Once you know many library database contains scholarly articles, you can start your searching there instead of using search tools that won’t get you what you need.

The following is a brief list of some popular research tools, along with the kinds of content you can expect to find in each.

Search Engines

Where do you head first when you need some information in your personal life? If you’re like most people, that place is Google.

Google and other search engines are generally good at understanding what you want and giving you at least some relevant results, but it’s important to understand their strengths and limitations. First, not all information is available online for free. It may sometimes seem like “everything is online,” but there’s still a massive amount of information that isn’t freely available through a Google search. If you go no farther than Google, you’ll miss out! Second, in college you’re generally expected to go beyond basic websites and use the resources experts use. You’re expected to learn the specialized research tools available to you, especially as you move forward in your discipline. Over-relying on Google might eventually start to impact your grades and your credibility.

That said, Google and other search engines are invaluable tools that all modern researchers use routinely. (We’ll explore how to level-up your Google searches later in the chapter.)

Library Catalogs

Library catalogs let you search items owned by the library. Mostly that means print books, but the Harper Library catalog also includes ebooks, DVDs, sheet music, streaming videos, and other materials.

As a Harper student, you also have access to something called the I-Share catalog. I-Share is a network of academic libraries in Illinois that partner together to share resources. You can borrow materials, including books, from other I-Share schools with your Harper ID, either by going to those other libraries directly or having the material sent to Harper for pick up. The I-Share catalog allows you to search the materials owned by all those other libraries in one place, and it means you have access to millions of books we don’t own at Harper. (For help using the catalog or placing requests for items, talk to a Harper librarian.)

Library Databases

Library databases are an important resource for researchers, both student and professional. Understanding how they work will make your research in the future easier and more productive!

What is a library database? A database is just a searchable collection of information. We use different kinds of databases every day. Spotify is a database of music. is a database of products for sale. Even your cellphone includes a database of family and friends’ names and phone numbers. When we talk about library databases, we’re usually talking about a searchable collection of articles or other written materials, though Harper does also have image, video, and music databases.

A few characteristics of databases (be sure to click each statement to learn more):

They aren’t free.

Libraries pay subscriptions, sometimes large ones, to get access to the content. (This is why it can be difficult to find the full text of scholarly articles for free using Google. Publishers want you to pay for the articles, not get them for free.) You’ll only have access to Harper’s databases while you are an actively enrolled student, but in the future you may have access to some databases through your public library or even your employer.

Each database contains different content.

Many databases only include articles for a particular subject area. An example of a subject-specific database is the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL,) which contains the full text to hundreds of different Nursing and Allied Health related journals. As you might imagine, the CINAHL database would be a poor place to find English Literature or History articles, but it would be great for finding high-quality articles for Nursing or other fields like Nutrition or Dentistry.

Some databases contain only certain formats of materials.

Be aware not only of a database’s subject area but also of the kinds of material formats it contains. For example, Global Newsstand contains hundreds of national and international newspapers, but only newspapers—no journals, no book chapters, etc. Films on Demand contains only videos. Other databases such as Academic Search Complete contain many formats such as scholarly journals, trade publications, videos, etc. Consider the type of format you need before you choose a database. Ask a librarian for help if you’re not sure which database contains what you need.

Some databases are multidisciplinary.

This means that a single database might cover many different subject areas. These large multidisciplinary databases are often the best, first stop for students doing research, and they’re an excellent choice when you’re unfamiliar with your topic or its discipline. Academic Search Complete is an example of a large, multidisciplinary database. You can find articles in Academic Search Complete on a wide variety of topics, from Supply Chain Management and Psychology to English Literature and Education.

Not all databases are full text.

A database might contain hundreds or even thousands of different full text journals, but it may also include article records where you can read a summary but not the full article. These abstract-only article records may not be immediately useful to you, but Harper has an Interlibrary Loan (ILL) service that can request the full text of the articles for you. If you have questions about using ILL and accessing items beyond Harper’s collections, contact a librarian.

Databases may not always be your first choice for research if you’re not as familiar with them as you are with search engines, but with practice you can learn to leverage these powerful tools.

Tip: Databases often focus on an area of study, such as Communications or Art, and they can be enormously helpful for finding discipline-specific information relevant to your topic. But ask yourself if your research topic has a multidisciplinary angle. For example, if you’re researching bullying in schools, you may want to search databases from several different categories: Education, Sociology, Psychology, etc. You may also want to use a multidisciplinary database that covers multiple areas of study. Think about the whole range of places where published research on your topic is likely to appear, and don’t be afraid to give them all a try!

Discovery Services

Discovery services allow someone to conduct a search across multiple collections at once. Whether you need books, a newspaper article, a streaming academic video, or a scholarly article, a discovery service may provide relevant results in one convenient location. Harper’s discovery service is called OneSearch, and you can access it from the Library’s homepage. Discovery services, including Harper’s OneSearch, aren’t perfect, though! While the content of most Harper databases appears in OneSearch results, it does not include content from all Harper databases. Determining which databases are included and which are not can be difficult, but a Harper librarian can help.

Tip: For research projects where you need a mix of books and articles, OneSearch can be an ideal search tool. OneSearch can also be helpful when your research topic is multidisciplinary in nature (i.e., it touches on several fields of study) as it draws in search results from many databases in a single search.


A librarian and student discussing a research question at the desk on the Harper Library’s main floor

Frequently, students come to the library after getting stuck in their research, saying “I just can’t find anything on my topic” or “I can find things on Google but not in library databases.” These types of challenges are extremely common and understandable! Whereas search engines are usually good at interpreting what we want, even if we didn’t ask for it in the clearest way, library databases aren’t very adept at interpreting what we want if we’re not clear. In addition, you may not be familiar with all the features and functions databases offer. There are many ways to improve your search results, however, both in library databases and even using search engines.


Before you start a database search, take a moment to examine your options on the search screen. Explore what limiters are available to you. Have you ever searched online for a product to buy? Then you have probably used limiters. For example, have you set your search in an online store to only show you products below a certain dollar amount? That is a limiter—you told the site to limit the results it showed you to only items in your price range. Most search tools have some limiters that can help filter out results you don’t want. Here are some of the most common limiters you might encounter in library databases:

  • Date or date range—Almost all databases allow you to limit results to a specific date, a range you set, or a general limit (e.g., the last 5 years).
  • Scholarly/Peer Reviewed—Databases that contain different formats will often let you limit results to articles from only scholarly or peer-reviewed publications.
  • Full Text—Some databases only provide full text articles, but others contain both full text articles as well as abstract-only entries. While you can request articles through Harper’s Interlibrary Loan service, if you want articles you can read immediately, find out if the database offers the option of limiting to full text results.
  • Publication Type—If you’re trying to find only one specific type of source, you may find this kind of limiter useful. For instance, if you want newspaper articles, check whether the database you are using includes newspapers and whether you can limit your results to only that format.
  • Many other options!—Take a few minutes to explore the screen when you first start searching in a database. A Harper librarian can also help you.

Tip: In some databases, you may need to select “Advanced Search” to access the full range of limiters available. Alternatively, many databases will let you limit your results after you do a search using limiters appearing on the search results screen. It helps to take your time to investigate the options each database offers, because those options can vastly improve your search.


We all conduct keyword searches in Google frequently. The basic process seems clear—we type in a word or string of words and Google provides us with a list of websites on which those words appear. It’s not always as easy to come up with effective keywords in library databases, however. Here are some general tips.

Keywords should:

  • Identify the main concepts in your research question
  • Be nouns and/or simple phrases
  • Leave out words that don’t help the search, such as adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and, usually, verbs

You should also:

  • Try alternative terms, including related words, synonyms, and singular and plural forms of the words
  • Note any terms you come across as you begin researching. Do the articles you found use different terminology you hadn’t thought of? Take note of those terms and add them to your searching.

Identifying and using effective keywords is a vitally important part of searching and often makes the difference between finding many useful sources and finding nothing useful. The following video from the Harper College Library offers more examples of how to make sure you’re using keywords effectively.

Tips for Online Searching

Most people know how to use search engines, but not everyone knows some of the more advanced tips for making your searches even more effective. You can find tips for using many different search engines by exploring online, but here are just a few to get you started using Google specifically:

  • Use quotation marks to search for words as a phrase. Google will look for those words together in that exact order. For example, if you search “Mexican women entrepreneurs” with and without quotation marks in Google, you get slightly different results. Try searches with and without quotation marks and decide if it makes a difference in your results. (Many library databases also allow you to use quotation marks for phrase searching.)
  • Use Google’s Advanced search. You can use the Advanced search to look for a phrase instead of using the shortcut mentioned above, as well as a number of other functions like searching only on a specific site, a domain (e.g., .edu, .gov, etc.), a language, a region, etc.
  • Where and who you are matters when searching. Did you know Google does not show the same search results to everyone? It tailors results based on what it thinks you most want to receive. (There’s a name for this problematic phenomenon: filter bubble.) Your search history, your location, your language, and much more can all factor into your results. There isn’t always much you can do about it, but be aware of this filtering and consider digging a little deeper so you are at least pushing at those boundaries Google sets up for you.The following talk from author and entrepreneur Eli Pariser explains more about filter bubbles and the effect they can have on our world. As you watch, think about where you might be encountering filter bubbles. What might those bubbles do to the information you have access to, whose voices you hear, and your view of the world?
  • Go beyond the first page of results. You should not assume the “best” info is always at the top.
  • Try Google’s other products. Google Books, Google News, and Google Scholar are great specialized search tools. Sometimes their results will come up when you just search, but if you want to dig deeper try each individually.
    • Google Books is for ebooks (and sometimes info about print books) and usually lets you either preview portions of a title or sometimes read the whole thing for free.
    • Google News is for news articles from around the world. Articles can vary in quality, but it’s one option for finding current information.
    • Google Scholar is for academic materials like articles, but not everything here is free. Don’t pay for articles, however! Talk to a Harper librarian about how you can access what you find on Scholar for free from the Library.
  • Try another search engine. Although it feels like it sometimes, Google isn’t the only search engine! Two popular options are DuckDuckGo and Bing.


Mikhail is a Harper student, doing a research paper for one of his classes. The research question he has chosen is: How does lack of sleep affect college students’ mental health?

He decides to use Academic Search Complete, a multidisciplinary database available at Harper College. At first, he types his research question into the main search box exactly as it appears above and searches. He does not get many results!

Then he remembers that in the visit his class made to the Library, the librarian showed them how to identify the main keywords for searching. After some thought, he identifies the following as the main concepts: 1) sleep g 2) college students 3) mental health. He instead enters those simple words and phrases into Academic Search Complete again. Success!

Now it’s your turn to repeat both of Mikhail’s searches!

1) Click to open Academic Search Complete. (If you are off-campus, you may be prompted to enter your Harper username and password. If you have trouble logging in, contact the Harper Help Desk.)

2) Enter this exact question: How does lack of sleep affect college students’ mental health?

3) Explore the results. How many were there? Did they look like they might be useful? Why or why not?

4) Now click the link for “Advanced Search.” Enter the following, one in each search box:

  • sleep
  • college students
  • mental health

5) Explore the results. How many were there? Did they look like they might be useful? Were the results of this search different from the first one? In what ways?

6) What might you do to improve the search even further? Look around the search results page. List some ways you think you could make the search better (either more results or more relevant results). Can you change any of the search terms, use limiters, etc.?

Evaluating Information

Unfortunately, just because a source came up in a search doesn’t mean it’s right for your purposes. All sources need to be evaluated. This is especially important for sources you find on the internet, where it’s easier to publish with no oversight, but it’s important to evaluate the sources you find through the Library, too. Evaluation isn’t just about whether a source is “good” or “bad;” it’s also about determining whether a source is the best choice for your information need.

When you begin evaluating sources, what should you consider? The TRAAP guidelines are an easy-to-remember series of elements to guide your investigation. It stands for:






These criteria aren’t a checklist! Instead, think of them as prompts helping you decide where a source lies on the spectrum of quality and usefulness.


Certain topics require you to pay special attention to how current your resource is—because they’re time sensitive, because they’ve evolved so much over time, or because new research comes out on the topic frequently.

When evaluating currency, some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Is older information still accurate/relevant? How frequently does information change about your topic?
  • Is the information dated? Is it still suitable for your topic?
  • What does your instructor require?


If you’re researching a current technology, you would want newer sources, because something even a few years old might already be out of date. On the other hand, if you’re researching a historical event, older sources might be ok. Consider your topic and what’s needed.


Remember, just because a source came up in your search results doesn’t mean it’ll be useful! The source has to serve a purpose in your paper, speech, assignment, or real-life need.

When evaluating relevance, some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Does the item provide information relevant to your argument or thesis? Will it support your argument or thesis in a way that’s important or unique?
  • Does the information presented support or refute your ideas? If the information refutes your ideas, how will this change your argument?


When searching Library databases, you might get a lot of results that are about the same general topic but address different aspects than what you’re planning to cover in your assignment. Just because an article mentions your topic doesn’t mean it’ll support your argument!


Authority is focused on the author, which may be a person, persons, or even an organization.

Authority can also be contextual—someone who’s an expert in one subject isn’t necessarily an expert in another subject. Often this means doing a few minutes of outside research on the author(s), maybe using Google, to find out who they are and what credentials they have.

When evaluating authority, some questions to ask yourself include:

  • What are the author’s credentials (e.g., education, titles, experience in the field, professional reputation, etc.)?
  • What qualifies the author to write about this topic?
  • What organization or body published the information or employs the author? Is it authoritative?


If you’re writing an essay about how public schools are funded, you would probably want to rely on sources from experts in the field of Education, not your local car mechanic who has no background in Education. Conversely, if you’re trying to find out how to repair your car, you would probably want to rely on sources created by a trained mechanic and not a pediatrician with little experience fixing cars. Consider the context of your topic and what qualifies someone as an expert in that area.


Determining where information comes from and if evidence supports the information can help you decide how and whether to use a source.

When determining accuracy, some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Is the source well-documented? Does it include footnotes, citations, or a bibliography full of other authoritative sources? If you wanted, could you follow up on those sources to verify the information?
  • Is information in the source presented as fact, opinion, or propaganda? Are biases clear?
  • Sometimes, it’s difficult to assess accuracy when you’re new to a topic because you just don’t know enough to spot misinformation. As you learn more during your research, however, continue returning to your sources to consider whether they still seem accurate. Do their conclusions hold up in the face of all you’ve learned? Do sources agree on the facts, or do some of them have wildly different information? If so, those differing sources may need a closer look.


You read one website that contains statistics that seem particularly outrageous. The site doesn’t list any sources for its data, and the other sites and articles you read don’t seem to agree with these statistics. It would probably be better not to use that one website as a source for your assignment, because you can’t verify its accuracy.


Knowing why information was created is key to evaluation.

When determining purpose, consider the following:

  • Is the author’s purpose to inform, sell, persuade, or entertain?
  • Does the source have an obvious bias or prejudice? (This might mean doing a little outside research.)
  • Does the author omit important facts or data that might disprove their argument?
  • Is the author’s language informal, joking, emotional, or inflammatory? Why might they have chosen that language?
  • Is the information clearly supported by evidence?


Imagine you’re researching for your essay, and you find information on your topic from a company selling a product. The information is presented to prove why people should buy their product, and it’s not clear who wrote the information or what their credentials are. While the site may or may not have accurate information, citing such a biased site in your paper might impact your own credibility. It would probably be better to look for other less biased sources instead.

Fact Checking Vs. Evaluating Information

You may have heard people talk about misinformation and disinformation and how false information can spread rapidly in today’s hyper-connected world. One strategy often recommend is “fact checking,” or following up on facts you see, read, or hear to determine whether they’re accurate. Fact checking can and should be a part of evaluating information.

There are many ways to approach fact checking, but the following video from author John Green gives some clear advice about why and how you should check information you encounter.


The TRAAP guidelines or any other fact checking strategies aren’t checklists you fill out to get a definitive “yes this is a good quality source” or “no this isn’t a good quality source.” Sources exist along a continuum. Only by thoroughly exploring the source and thinking about it in the context of your project can you decide whether it’s the right source for you.

The answer can also change over time; as you learn more about your topic, you may find that your views on sources evolve. How high the stakes are for your need will also impact your evaluation. Research to settle a bet with your friend is certainly lower stakes than a paper worth 30% of your course grade, and that will have an impact on how you evaluate information.

What should not change, however, is including evaluation in your research process.


To participate in college-level research is to engage with a chain of debate and scholarship that extends well beyond any individual scholar or researcher’s efforts. As new knowledge builds on or upends older established knowledge, a conversation of sorts develops across time. When we conduct or synthesize the research or writings of others in a college-level research paper, we participate in that conversation. The key holding this vast enterprise together is the notion of citation.

Citation is how scholars acknowledge or point to the work of earlier scholars. Ideally, citation provides a standard means for tracking down the research of others by providing enough information about the original source that others can easily find it. Citations typically include things like article titles, journal titles, authors, dates, and publication information. Citations will look different and contain different elements depending on citation style, discipline of study, and the format and nature of the information itself. The purpose is the same, though: to give credit to the original creators of words/ideas and to make the original source of any information you reference easily findable by others. This is our responsibility as participants in research.

Citations can also be a great research tool themselves. If you come across an article, book, or website that you find particularly useful, look at the sources it cites. Following up on those citations can help you locate even more relevant information in a short amount of time. (If you need help locating any sources, ask a librarian.)

Academic Honesty

All schools, including Harper College, have policies about academic dishonesty. Academic dishonesty is a broad category that includes all forms of cheating and falsifying information, but for the purposes of research we’re most concerned with one form of academic dishonesty: plagiarism.

Harper’s Academic Honesty Policy says, “Plagiarism is the presentation of another person’s words, ideas, or work as one’s own. It includes but isn’t limited to copying any material, (written or non-written) without proper acknowledgement of its source, and paraphrasing another’s work or ideas without proper acknowledgement[1].”

Harper takes plagiarism very seriously, and penalties for it can include having to redo assignments, receiving a lower or failing grade on an assignment, failing the course, being reported to the Student Conduct Office, and even, in some cases, getting expelled from Harper. Therefore, it’s critical that you understand plagiarism and how to avoid it.


Plagiarism can take many forms, but here are some of the common ones:

  • Turning in someone else’s work, word-for-word, and claiming it as your own
  • Changing key words and phrases of someone else’s work but mostly keeping the meaning the same
  • Mixing copied material from multiple sources
  • Trying to cite but doing it poorly (incomplete information, incorrect formatting, etc.)

Citation (including the proper use of borrowed material) is the tool you use to avoid plagiarism. Citing serves several purposes:

  • To acknowledge others for their ideas, words, and images
  • To lend credibility to our arguments
  • To connect our ideas to other writers’ ideas in our field
  • To provide readers with sources that they can use for their own projects

In academic work, citing is done using specific citation styles, which are methods for documenting sources and information. The two most popular, and the ones you are most likely to encounter at Harper, are MLA and APA styles. This chapter won’t detail how to cite specifically, but there are many resources available at Harper and on the web that can help you create or gather citations. You can find more resources in the Do You Want to Know More? section of this chapter.

The video below will provide more examples of plagiarism and how you can avoid it during your time at Harper and beyond.

Artificial Intelligence and Plagiarism

AI tools such as ChatGPT are changing the process of writing in many industries and pushing the boundaries of what we consider “original” work and thought. While exploring the complexities and ethical challenges of AI is beyond the scope of this chapter, it’s important to note that taking work (text, images, ideas, etc.) created by artificial intelligence and submitting it as if it’s your own is considered plagiarism. Be sure you carefully read your syllabi and other documentation from your professors so you understand their policies about the use of AI, and if they haven’t stated their position, ask. It’s your responsibility to understand and adhere to the academic honesty policies of your class and Harper as a whole.


Mackenzie finds a website written by a university professor that talks about the topic she’s chosen for her assignment. One sentence on the website states the same idea Mackenzie had but in a way that’s clearer than she thinks she could write on her own. Mackenzie writes her essay, but she decides to copy that sentence and put it in her paper because it’s just so good. She doesn’t put quotation marks or list the name of the professor because it was just one short sentence and it states the same idea Mackenzie already had herself. She does, however, include a citation at the end of her paper with information about this source.

Did Mackenzie plagiarize? What did she do right, and could she have done anything better?



This chapter is an adaption from the following:

Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries, used under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

Information Literacy Concepts: An Open Educational Resource by David Hisle and Katy Webb, used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

The Information Literacy User’s Guide: An Open, Online Textbook by Deborah Bernnard, Greg Bobish, Jenna Hecker, Irina Holden, Allison Hosier, Trudi Jacobson, Tor Loney, and Daryl Bullis, used under a NC-SA 4.0 International License,

  1. Harper College. "Academic Honesty Policy." Student Handbook,


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Harper First Year Seminar: A Guide to College Success Copyright © 2023 by Harper College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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