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PSCI 2306: American Government (for PSCI majors)

Library research guide for PSCI 2306

What does critically evaluating the literature mean?

  • Asking the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’, not the ‘whats’
  • This means being analytical, not just descriptive. You need to:
    • Consider how valid and reliable the research is
    • What are its strengths and weaknesses?
    • Consider how applicable to your research question the research is
    • Draw comparisons with other research findings
  • Ask the ‘why’ questions, like:
    • Why do the results differ from findings of other similar research?
    • What explanations have the authors suggested and are there alternatives?
    • Make links with practice and wider populations where appropriate


Evaluating Sources

Image result for abraham lincoln internet quote poster

How to Evaluate Websites and Sources

Currency: The timeliness of the web page

Relevance/Coverage: The uniqueness of the content and its importance for your needs

Authority: The source of the web page

Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the informational content

Purpose: The presence of bias or prejudice/The reason the website exists

When you search the Web, you’re going to find a lot of information…but is it accurate and reliable? You will have to determine this for yourself, and the CRAAP Test can help. The CRAAP Test is a list of questions you can ask yourself in order to determine if the information on a website is reliable…So, what are you waiting for? Is your website credible and useful, or is it a bunch of….!


Don't just describe, evaluate!

A critical reviewing example

Look at this example:

A study by Daniels (1998) found that group exercise was more effective than a control (n=21) in significantly reducing anxiety symptoms among 22 middle-aged men. The participants were randomly assigned to groups and effects were maintained at 6 month follow-up. Beck (2005) reported that anxiety symptoms decreased in a group of 42 middle-aged men and women in comparison to a control. No follow-up measures were taken.

What is the problem with this as a piece of critical writing?  

Avoid simple description; you must evaluate if you are to be critical (though some description will still be required to ‘set the scene’, otherwise the reader won’t understand the context).

Here are some further tips:

  • Write out explicit definitions of central technical terms. Often, doing this (perhaps in the introduction) will lead you into making criticisms - maybe of studies that used different definitions for no good reason, or that included subjects who don't fit the usual definition. It can also lead to criticising papers that failed to explain how they defined crucial terms. It can help you explain how you selected your papers.
  • Criticise the technique used. Criticise the method of each paper, and distinguish serious from marginal criticisms of the method.
  • Could or should techniques not used have been applied? Offer constructive suggestions about better methods or approaches. Discuss what you would do to improve research in the area. Consider whether techniques from other areas could be imported into this one. If you think one line of work has led to no clear conclusion, what would you recommend? Simply more detailed methods but the same kind of study, or a different kind of study? You might decide that, in a given area, the issues have been adequately resolved and there is no great need for further work. But giving your own view (and reasons for it) in addition to what published papers say, adds value.
  • Criticise for failure to look at other established approaches to the problem. In some areas, there may be whole approaches with different research methods that should be considered, yet many papers stay within one approach and fail even to mention the other. One standard approach to criticism is to comment on such one-sidedness.


A better example

An example of good writing

A study by Daniels (2002) found that group exercise was more effective than a control (n=24) in significantly reducing anxiety symptoms among 28 middle-aged men. The participants were randomly assigned to groups and effects were maintained at 6 month follow-up. A strength of Daniel’s study was the randomisation of participants to groups and the incorporation of a follow-up anxiety measure. However, the study is limited due to the relatively small sample size and anxiety measure which has been shown to have poor reliability (ref).


The lowest approach to a critical review just summarises the contents of some papers. A better approach also collects and presents criticisms, but is still essentially reacting to the papers one by one and bit by bit. But what is best is when the critical review as a whole has a clear structure invented by the student, not just directly reflecting the papers being reviewed.

This cannot be planned in advance. One student decided to review the literature on personality and binge drinking, and noticed on his first pass through the papers that most studies had only reported on one or two of the main personality dimensions. This became his chief criticism and also offered a structure for his whole review: beginning with a summary of personality theory, and discussing the studies under each of the 5 personality dimensions in turn. Another concerned CBT therapies for certain mental illnesses. This student began with an introduction about the relevant general issues of clinical study methods, including references to papers on what is desirable. He then applied those standards to the particular papers he was reviewing: again imposing a pre-selected set of standards which he had independently justified and laid out in advance.

This kind of approach usually cannot be decided on until after reading the set of papers through for the first time, making notes of points, and eventually coming to a decision about the most important overall issue. By imposing their own standards and structure, these students demonstrated they were not just taking the literature uncritically; and this gave their whole critical reviews a coherence that the students, not the papers, had come up with.


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