A Guide to Critical Reading: Before You Read

Have you ever heard someone say, “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack?”  In today’s information saturated world, doing research often feels like this.  Overwhelming!  Where do  you begin?

Many students simply give up looking and choose the first thing they see:  the first website on a Google results list, the first article to present itself in a database search, the first book they find in the library.   Does this practice promise good information?  Not always.  But, for sure, you can’t read it all!

But let’s look at it in another way.  With so many sources to choose from, why waste your time reading one if it’s not a good source.  Pre-evaluating your sources can save you time! Start by asking yourself…

Does this source provide new information or insights?
Does it offer anything I don’t already know?

  • Read a summary!  Look for it on the back of a book or inside the front cover.  Locate an abstract of a journal article you find online.  Read an online review of a reference  source.
  • Scan the table of contents.  What does it reveal about the topics covered in the source?  Does it highlight the direction the author is going?

Are the author and publisher credible?

Google the author, editor, and publishers names (one at a time, in quotes).  Look for indications of expertise (education, employer, professional affiliation).  Do you see references to this or other works by the author.  What criticisms or endorsements are made?  Whose making them?

Is the source current?

  • Check out the copyright date (inside title page) and ask yourself:  Is information published on this date likely to be accurate or relevant  today?  Historical facts and literary texts generally remain reliable for long periods of time, while scientific and technical information , as well as social commentary become quickly dated.
  • Check the title for time limiting words like “recent,” “future,” “modern.”  Does that title make sense when considering  the copyright date?  Do you really want to use that 1999 article about the “recent” advances in stem-cell research for a paper you’re writing in 2013?

Does the source have a bibliography?
If it’s a book, is there an index?

A bibliography indicates research (which you can cross-check), while an index provides usability (a feature often included in well-researched titles).

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