As is the case with assessing news reporting and the epidemic of ‘fake news’, relying on quality academic sources matters. It can be a challenge working information on source quality and selection into a class.(1) Too often, the expectation seems to be that students will identify quality sources based on a class’s reading list, but this frequently leads to mixed results. What follows is a brief version of what I discuss with my thesis/dissertation students. These steps are also very closely related to my own practice when doing background for a new research project and I need to (re)gain familiarity with the relevant literature.
Identifying quality academic sources
- The most fundamental step is to distinguish legitimate academic sources from illegitimate sources. So-called ‘predatory’ publishers promise peer-reviewed research and run off the publication fees charged to authors with no real peer-review process or quality verification involved.
- The most vivid example of this involved a paper called ‘Get Me Off Your Fucking Mail List’ consisting of nothing more than those words.
- Most publications in predatory journals are more mundane. Getting to know most good journals in a field takes a lot of time, but PredatoryJournals.com provides lists of predatory journals and the predatory publishers that produce them, which makes it easy to verify your sources.
- Not all legitimate academic sources are equal. You want to address the broadest relevant academic debate in your work to demonstrate your knowledge of the literature. Papers on class reading lists, and the journals represented, can be a good place to start.
- Scimago provides a quick way to assess journal influence. Journals are grouped according to field, and quartile rankings are easy to compare. Top journals tend to be grouped in Q1 and Q2, which shows up as green or yellow in the top left figure (see the image below, for International Organization, the top international relations journal).
- Specialist journals often fall into Q2 or Q3 (orange). These can provide valuable sources, but should be generously supplemented with broader work in Q1/Q2 journals. In general, avoid journals that tend to remain in Q4 (red).
- Scimago generally excludes predatory journals, so it can be used as a quick check for both the quality and legitimacy of an outlet.(2)
- HeinOnline provides a great index of law journals, which are not indexed in Scimago.
- Working papers can be useful sources, despite not having undergone peer review. These are most frequently hosted at ArXiv, CEPR, CesIFO, NBER, osf.io, SSRN, and CERN’s Zenodo, although they may also be found on authors’ and universities’ websites.
- For individual articles or books, citation count provides a useful quick indicator of influence. Google Scholar provides a pretty accurate count compared to other options (such as Altmetric, Researchgate, SSRN, or publishers’ sites).
- In general, a higher count indicates greater influence, but there are significant variations across disciplines, and pre-publication dissemination and citation patterns, which influence these counts.
- For books, press reputation can be a useful indicator of quality as well.
Searching for sources
- Use Google Scholar (not the vanilla Google search), as it provides access to different manuscript versions (some of which may be both current and ungated) and metrics, as well as full referencing information (different citation formats can be found in the “).
- To situate a particular topic in its broader research context, try searching for more general sets of terms.
- For particularly useful sources, looking at the list of ‘cited by’ works can yield other useful, more recent resources.
- For non-academic sources, pay attention to where the source comes from.
- (I)NGOs, government agencies, and think tanks all produce a mix of research-based publications and normative policy-position publications. Be careful about the context in which you refer to each.
- Consider the reputation of the issuing source. Is it partisan or nonpartisan, notably right- or left-leaning despite partisan (non)affiliation? Have there been past research-integrity controversies?
Updated: 9 June 2020
- This is partly because we get minimal ‘contact hours’ in the UK (to use the domestic industry’s favorite term for ‘teaching time’, which needs to be distinguished from teaching preparation, teaching support, and myriad administrative tasks to justify teaching-related activities for the government and university’s senior administrators), and partly due to the extent to which source identification can feel like navel gazing – of interest only to colleagues seeking new sources and those few students seeking to pursue an academic career.
- Some new journals are also omitted. Those most relevant for the classes I teach are Journal of Global Strategic Studies, Journal of International Business Policy, Political Research Exchange, and Political Science Research & Methods.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.