Maybe your professor said academic or peer-reviewed?
1. The publisher specializes in scholarly publications (such as Sage Publications). You can Google the publisher to find out more.
2. The author or authors are credentialed. Credentialed means that the authors have done the work to be "provided with...credentials," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In other words, they have done the academic labor of achieving degrees, compiling and publishing research, submitting papers, going through peer-review, and other forms of professionalization.
(Wait, what's peer-review? It's a process by which submitted articles like this one are read by other experts in the field to determine quality and fit for the journal. The article is then edited and accepted or rejected for publication.)
3. There's an abstract. An abstract is a brief summary of the article. While not always present, it is often standard before a scholarly journal article. It helps you understand the author's intentions, methods, and outcomes, and helps you decide if you want to use the article without having to read the whole thing.
4. Keywords. Not every article will have keywords listed like this on the main page, but most will have them in the database record. If you think any of the keywords describe more clearly what you're trying to research, try using these keywords to search!
A literature review summarizes and synthesizes the research an author has done to lay the foundation for their work. It helps you as a reader understand what scholarship the author has consulted, and which scholars influenced their thinking in which ways. Because the author lays out their research in a literature review, this is a great section in which to look for background information and additional articles using the in-text citations and references.
If the author conducted an original study, they will include a section that details their research strategy they followed to achieve their results. This assures the readers (and their peer reviewers) that they pursued ethical means of research, and outlines the steps they created and followed to get there. It will also inform the reader of the types of methods they chose and why, which can help the reader understand the mechanics of their study and the results.
A heavy reference page is a good indicator that the author or authors did a fair amount of research to establish credibility and participated in a significant and serious scholarly conversation. While research can take many forms (a scientific study, for example), a published scholarly article won't be complete without evidence that the author or authors consulted with peers and experts to shape the course of their research. This can result in agreement, or argument -- hence the nature of a conversation. When you do college-level writing, you too are participating in the ongoing conversation.
Watch this 3-minute video, then use the worksheets below to help you determine if a source is credible.
Whenever you begin to examine a source, be asking yourself FOUR questions about it:
Who? What? Where? Why?
WHO: Who is the author of the source? Make sure there is an identifiable author (or authors) taking credit for the work. People who stand behind their work usually sign their work.
WHAT: What is the author's background and authority? How is this person qualified to speak about this topic? If it is an academic source, what are their credentials (degrees) or background in publishing other books and articles on this or a related topic? If it is a more popular media source (general audience book, newspaper, or magazine) what else have then written about or where else have they published? What is their "authority" to speak on the topic.
WHERE: Where is the source published? What journal is it in? Who publishes the journal or book? What is that publisher's track record? What else do they publish? There are many predatory journals and vanity presses in existence, to say nothing of the open web. And while some research published this way might be of good quality, all of them mostly lack any sort of rigorous peer review process to verify the research and conclusions.
WHY: Why was this published? Was it written mainly to inform an audience about the topic (i.e., to provide them with information on new research and/or publish conclusions)? Or was it written to persuade an audience to one side of an argument (introducing bias)? Just because a source might be biased does not mean you cannot use it, but it does mean that you must read it with a more skeptical eye and use the information critically and cautiously.
With this four questions in mind, you can approach each new source you find with an eye towards evaluating it for use and inclusion in your academic research at U of M!