Books can be an excellent source for information on a wide range of subjects and research topics, yet it's important to realize that not all books are created equal. When choosing a book, think critically about the quality of the material and how appropriate it is for your research.
All books are written with a particular audience in mind. To determine this audience, you may need to do some investigating. Here are a few things to consider:
- Is the book geared toward general readers, students, or specialists in the field?
- Does the text use technical or scholarly language?
- Does the book assume the reader is well-educated in one particular discipline?
- Does the book touch on several different topics or explore one issue or topic in detail?
- Is the level of the book appropriate for your needs?
Accuracy refers to whether the book provides verifiable and reliable factual information. Here are some tips to guide you as you investigate the accuracy of a book:
- Are there errors in the information presented? Minor mistakes might be acceptable, but too many errors could undermine the information offered.
- Are there theories that have since been disproven in the book? This is especially important to determine for scientific texts.
- Does the text generally agree with other sources for the same information?
- Is there documentation or evidence presented for the information provided? Look for in-text references and citations or a bibliography at the end of the article, chapter, or book.
As with any source, it is important to consider what the people or organizations who produced the material might have at stake. Here are a few things you might ask yourself to determine whether there is any bias in the book:
- Does the book contain basic information that contradicts generally accepted information found in many of your other sources?
- When was the book published? Could the time period in which it was written introduce bias?
- Who is the author? Does he or she have strong ties with any organizations or corporations? Is the author an active political figure?
- Who published the book? A university, publishing company, corporation, or another organization?
- Are politics involved? If the book was published by an organization, look carefully for political affiliations, leanings, or any specific agenda it might have.
- What do the author and publisher have to gain from convincing readers their opinion is right?
When determining the credibility of a book, look closely at the author and the publisher.
- Is the author an expert in this field? What else has he or she written?
- Where is the author employed? Is the author associated with a group or organization that may stand to benefit from the research? For instance, a scientific study about pain relievers may be less credible if the primary investigator works for Bayer, a major manufacturer of aspirin.
- Is the publisher well known?
- Does the author or publisher stand to benefit from the research or argument presented in the publication? If so, this may indicate bias.
Universities, museums, and other educational or research institutions are often reliable publishers. For example, the Association of American University Presses is the largest and oldest association of nonprofit scholarly publishers in the world. Any university press affiliated with this organization is well-respected and can be assumed to publish credible material.
The issue of currency is important when evaluating factual information, since new research and information is constantly emerging. The date a document or book was created may affect its accuracy or introduce bias, and should be especially noted when researching issues in the sciences.
For example, when researching current environmental issues in Alaska, which book would you prefer?
- Change in Alaska; people, petroleum, and politics was published in 1970 by the University of Alaska. It is a collection of essays from the Alaska Science Conference, held in 1969. Although it includes scholarly material, which may be appropriate for a project about the history of environmental issues in Alaska, the studies do not address any current issues.
- Early Warming: crisis and response in the climate-changed north was published in 2011. It is a collection of narratives about the recent effects of and community responses to climate change in Alaska. It includes some scientific content and references.