National Paralegal College

Accessing and Evaluating Information for Research

By: Eve Rosenbaum

February 10, 2015

Research is a hallmark of scholarship, and being a student in any discipline requires knowing how to access and evaluate information. Although many of us use Google or Wikipedia for a quick reference search or finding a definition on the internet, understanding that not everything created for the internet is credible is a valuable skill. In fact, most of what one might find through Google or Wikipedia would never be used as a source of scholarly information in a research paper or legal document. Thus, as students, we must recognize the differences between types of information sources and understand where and how to find material that is scholarly rather than popular.

Types of Information

When we discuss information, we often talk about the differences between scholarly and popular sources. Popular sources of information populate our everyday lives and range from newspapers to articles in popular publications, like Time or Newsweek, for example. Popular material is rarely acceptable as evidence or support in a scholarly paper or in most student research or work. Scholarly information almost always comes from scholars themselves through publications or journal articles put out by scholarly presses. These types of presses will often be affiliated with universities. Many of these publications and journal articles will also appear in online databases, such as LexisNexis—or the aggregator of many databases, EBSCOhost.

LexisNexis is a tool for professional legal research. It contains virtually all legal and law-related documents published in the United States, most with significant annotations and cross-references. It is potentially a very powerful tool, but does have quite a steep learning curve. Check with your library to see if you have access to this database. For a basic search for the text of a law and perhaps a bit of context, try Cornell University’s not-for-profit Legal Information Institute site at www.law.cornell.edu or www.findlaw.com. These will likely be quicker options. Use LexisNexis when you need to pursue material at a deeper level. It is also possible to find scholarly articles through Google, but make sure you select Google Scholar as your search tool (scholar.google.com).

Here are some helpful hints about the differences between scholarly and popular sources. Use these criteria to help you determine if the material you are working with is scholarly in nature.

Evaluating a Source

As mentioned earlier, most of the information you find on the internet falls into the category of popular material, mass-produced for a general audience. But sometimes there is valuable information available on the web through organizations and agencies that are important to our fields and disciplines. Often these websites will be sponsored by government or educational agencies and their urls will end in .gov, .edu, or .org. Do not, however, assume that all information from websites with these url endings are trustworthy or valuable. Search engine optimization consultants have long been aware of the faith the general public has in such websites and thus many sites exist with these urls that have little or no credibility. Again, remember, websites affiliated with universities or are created by college or university scholars are probably better options.

When assessing the information from a website or other unknown source, consider the following questions:

Why Not Wikipedia? A Word of Advice

As mentioned earlier, references can be a great place to start your research process. From reference sources, like Wikipedia and encyclopedias, we learn great background information. But Wikipedia and other encyclopedias generally should not be used as sources within an academic (or legal) paper. Why not?

This doesn't mean Wikipedia, or any other encyclopedia, is necessarily wrong; it just means that it's harder for a third person (a judge, your professor) to evaluate the accuracy of the content—so your reader might well dismiss any information coming from such a source.

Fortunately, encyclopedias generally do a good job of citing their own sources, so you can track back and find the scholarly work, and cite to that. But what if there's not a citation to something in a Wikipedia article? That's a red flag that the information might be misguided.

Ultimately, our arguments are made stronger by credible evidence and support. This kind of material is best found in scholarly publications. Following the tips here will help you in this process.

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National Juris University, the graduate division of National Paralegal College, offers the following programs:

Master of Science in Legal Studies
Master of Science in Compliance Law
Master of Science in Taxation