Skip to Main Content

Geology Writing Guide

Evaluating Sources

A successful research project begins with a search of the literature.   As you discover sources, you will need to evaluate their relevance, credibility, and reliability. You will need scholarly sources to support your ideas and reference in your paper.

Start by reading your assignment carefully.  Understand what your professor’s expectations are regarding the types of sources you should be using.  In most cases, you will be expected to use scholarly research literature, sometimes referred to as the primary literature; it represents the results of original research (i.e. new information contributed to the discipline).  This is the literature scientists use to communicate their results to other researchers.

Note: As we said in the Developing a Topic portion of this guide, you may want to read more popular works to explore a topic, sources like websites, blogs, magazines, your textbook, etc.  However, these are examples of secondary literature (summaries of the primary literature) and will not be appropriate to cite in your paper.

Scientists communicate the results of their research to one another using several types of primary literature.  Recognizing this literature will help you identify scholarly works.  The following are the types of scholarly works that would be appropriate for your paper:

Journal Articles:

The most common type of primary literature is scholarly research journals, sometimes referred to as academic journals.  They publish scholarly research in the form of articles that are often peer reviewed (i.e. articles that have been reviewed and critiqued by the author’s peers in their area of research).  Key characteristics that can help you recognize a scholarly research article are as follows:

  • Authorship

    • Scholarly works will clearly identify the author(s) and provide you with information about their “authority” to communicate the information.  Look for information about an author’s degrees and/or institutional affiliation.  They will have a PhD or other higher degree in their field of interest and are typically from an academic institution or respected research organization.
  • Organization of the information

    • These articles will typically follow the format of a scientific paper as outlined in the beginning of this writing guide: Abstract, Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion.
  • References

    • The author(s) of a research paper will have done a comprehensive search of the literature related to their work and cited this literature in their article, particularly in the Introduction where they are putting their work in the context of what has previously been done by others.
  • Examples of scholarly journals in Geology


Review articles:

Review articles are also published in journals but, unlike research articles that discuss a specific research study, review articles summarize a collection of published literature about a particular topic.  Their benefit is that they can show the progress of research over time, help make connections between the works of different researchers, and suggest opportunities for future research.  In a review article, the author has already identified and pulled together a lot of literature for you.

Report literature:

The report literature can come from government agencies as part of their organizational mission and from private research organizations contracted by a sponsoring government agency.  This literature may not be peer reviewed, but should receive oversight by senior research associates within the organization.

Peer review of U.S. Geological Survey publications

Scholarly books:

Some book literature can also be a source of scholarly work.  Here are two examples:

  • University presses and professional association publishers - Books published by academic institutions or professional organizations (e.g. Harvard University Press, U.S. Geological Survey, or Geological Society of America) will have authors who are scholars or researchers.  
  • Edited books - Edited books will have one or more editors who have compiled a collection of papers written by different authors.  The papers will typically be scholarly in nature.

Other helpful sites:


Ask a Librarian