Assessing and Evaluating Sources
Critical thinking is interwoven in all steps of the research process, and one of the places you will definitely use it is when you evaluate your sources. As you researched your sources, you may have developed a good sense of which sources are going to be the most useful in supporting your research question. However, the credibility of your research paper relates directly to your sources. Are your sources themselves valid? You need to consciously evaluate your sources in order to make final choices about using them in your research essay.
The two main questions you should ask yourself when evaluating sources are the following:
- Is this source suitable?
- Is this source trustworthy?
Not every suitable source is trustworthy, and not every trustworthy source is suitable. In Miguel’s example that follows, you’ll see that the writing professor encourages Miguel to talk to the right sources as part of the conversation on his topic. To do this, he needs to find authors who are trustworthy and knowledgeable.
Miguel: If I used a university or government website on bottled water quality, would readers trust me more than if I just used a bottled water company website?
Prof: Yes. Refresh my memory. What kinds of questions do you need answers to before you can write your paper?
Miguel: Well, I need to know if bottled water is truly healthier, like the beverage companies claim. Or would I be just as well off drinking tap water?
Prof: To answer this question, you’ll want to find out who’s talking about these issues in the overall conversation (or discourse) about bottled water. The authors of texts aren’t speaking aloud, of course, but they’re making written statements that others can “listen” and “respond” to. Knowing which texts you can trust means understanding which authors you can trust.
Miguel: How do I figure that out?
Prof: It helps to know who the authors are. What they’re saying. Where, when, and to whom they’re saying it. To go into more depth into questions about suitability and trustworthiness of sources, consider the following.
Your task as a researcher is to determine the appropriateness of the information your source contains for your particular research project. Ask this simple question: Will this source help me answer my research questions? Will it help me learn as much as I can about my topic? Will it help me write an interesting, convincing essay for my readers?
- Contain facts/opinions that help answer your research question,
- May contain illustrations or data that help answer your research question,
- Clearly explain their information,
- Are/were written by a well known authority or expert, and
- Carefully cite the sources they used.
- May not offer any relevant, important information or counter-argument,
- May not contain any new information that advances your understanding of your topic,
- May be too narrow or too broad in coverage of your topic,
- May be from very general sources and not from a scholarly journal or peer-reviewed source,
- May be from a scholarly journal but be too technical or difficult for you to understand,
- May be out of date, or
- Do not cite the sources they used.
To determine the trustworthiness and credibility of a source, you want to ensure that a source is current, written by an expert, accurate, and unbiased. You’ll want to consider the rhetorical context of a source, including its purpose, audience, and focus.
View the following video, which clearly identifies a variety of questions to ask in order to evaluate sources.
Evaluating Sources to Find Quality Research. Authored by: PCC Library. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.
Evaluating the credibility and validity of a resource can be very difficult, particularly when doing research using the Internet. Below are some basic guidelines to help you select reliable resources and use those to glean, or find, accurate information about a given subject.
Characteristics of Reliable Sources
Whenever you consult a source, always think carefully about the author’s or authors’ purpose in presenting the information. Few sources present facts completely objectively. In some cases, however, the source’s content and tone are significantly influenced by biases or hidden agendas.
Bias refers to favoritism or prejudice toward a particular person or group. For instance, an author may be biased against a certain political party and present information in a way that subtly—or not so subtly—makes that organization look bad. Bias can lead an author to present facts selectively, edit quotations to misrepresent someone’s words, and distort information.
Hidden agendas are goals that are not immediately obvious but influence how an author presents the facts. For instance, an article about the role of beef in a healthy diet would be questionable if it were written by a representative of the beef industry—or by the president of an animal-rights organization. In both cases, the author would likely have a hidden agenda.
As Miguel conducted his research, he read several research studies in which scientists found significant benefits to following a low-carbohydrate diet. He also noticed that many studies were sponsored by a foundation associated with the author of a popular series of low-carbohydrate diet books. Miguel read these studies with a critical eye, knowing that a hidden agenda might be shaping the researchers’ conclusions.
When using websites for research, check to see when the site was last updated. Many sites publish this information on the homepage, and some, such as news sites, are updated daily or weekly. Many nonfunctioning links are a sign that a website is not regularly updated. Do not be afraid to ask your professor for suggestions if you find that many of your most relevant sources are not especially reliable—or that the most reliable sources are not relevant. If you are finding your sources on the internet, is also important to think about who is sponsoring the information. The URL can provide information about the origin of the resource. The following are examples of ways you can determine the type of organization that is sponsoring the content for a specific website.
Sites ending in....
.edu are usually educational institutions and generally a good source of information.
.gov are government websites and usually good sources for statistical information
.org are typically non-profit organizations often set up as a public service. Be on the lookout for political agendas and biases.
Example: If you are looking for information about gun control, then you might check .gov sites for statistics related to gun ownership, laws, etc. Sites affiliated with specific biases on gun ownership will probably be listed on .org sites (handguncontrol.org or nrahg.org).
While interesting, these are usually not fact-based and as a general rule should not be used for conducting research.
Online magazines or journals
These articles often contain a detailed bibliography and site specific resources as evidence for claims and statistics.
Online news sources
Virtually every network and cable news station has an online site as do local affiliates. It is important to realize that while they do provide news, they are also involved in the entertainment industry and may present some information that is based in opinion and not necessarily facts.
Television/Internet video news broadcasts
When viewing video, keep in mind that if it is not from a source that can be accurately documented with origin, date, and key information like who, what, when, where, why and how, then the source may not be credible.
High Quality Sources
These sources provide the most in-depth information. They are researched and written by subject matter experts and are carefully reviewed.
These sources are often useful. However, they do not cover subjects in as much depth as high-quality sources, and they are not always rigorously researched and reviewed. Some, such as popular magazine articles or company brochures, may be written to market a product or a cause. Use them with caution.
These sources should be avoided. They are often written primarily to attract a large readership or present the author’s opinions and are not subject to careful review.
Free online encyclopedias and wikis may seem like a great source of information. They usually appear among the first few results of a web search. They cover thousands of topics, and many articles use an informal, straightforward writing style. Unfortunately, these sites have no control system for researching, writing, and reviewing articles. Instead, they rely on a community of users to police themselves. At best, these sites can be a starting point for finding other, more trustworthy sources. Never use them as final sources.
Questions to ask yourself when determining the credibility of an academic paper/study are:
- Who funded the study?
- Are there any professional links between the author and the funder?
- Do the authors explain where the data comes from and how they obtained it?
- Who are the authors? Are they experts in their fields (i.e., what is their authority?) Keep in mind that expertise in one field is no guarantee of expertise in another, unrelated area. For instance, an author may have an advanced degree in physics, but this credential is not a valid qualification for writing about psychology. Check credentials carefully.
- What does the author’s purpose seem to be?
- How recent is the source?
- Does the writing have a lot of emotionally laden words (i.e., is it not objective)?
- Does the author cite their own sources?
Choose one of your articles you've gathered for your research paper. Answer the following questions, and then write a summary explaining whether and why you believe the source is credible enough to act as one of your sources.
1. Who funded the study/article?
2. Who owns the publication? Do they have a commercial or political purpose?
3. Are there any professional links between the author and the funder?
4. Do the authors explain where the data comes from and how they obtained it?
5. Who are the authors? Are they experts in their fields?
6. What does the author's seem to be?
7. How recent is the source?
8. Does the writing have a lot of emotionally laden words, indicating it may not be objective?
9. Do the authors cite their sources
Avoiding Conspiracy Theories and Fake News
Avoiding conspiracy theories and fake news is essential for conducting credible research. The following guides have helpful resources to help you determine whether a news story you are considering is legitimate or not. The second source allows you to search and find out if a conspiracy theory or urban legend is true or not.
How to Spot Fake News (Harvard University Library)
Strategy: The CRAAP Test
One excellent tool to examine both the suitability and trustworthiness of a source is the CRAAP method, which stands for:
- Currency: the timeliness of the information
- Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs
- Authority: the source of the information
- Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the information
- Purpose: the reason the information exists
The following video offers a good explanation of these points of analysis.
Study Help: Evaluating Information. Authored by: University of South Australia. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.
Currency: The Timeliness of the Information
Key Question: When was the item of information published or produced?
Determining when an item of information was published or produced is an aspect of evaluating information. The date the information was published or produced tells you how current it is or how relevant it is to the topic you are researching. For example, if you were writing a research paper on the survival of passengers in car crashes, you would need the most recent information on automobile crash tests, structural strength of materials, car wreck mortality statistics, etc. If, on the other hand, you were writing a research paper on the feelings of college students about the Vietnam War during the 1960s, you would need information written in the 1960s by college students (primary sources) as well as materials written since then about college students in the 1960s (secondary sources). Key indicators of the currency of the information are:
- date of copyright
- date of publication
- date of revision or edition
- dates of sources cited
- date of patent or trademark
Relevance: The Importance of the Information for Your Needs
Key Question: How does this source contribute to my research paper?
When you read through your source, consider how the source will effectively support your argument and how you can use the source in your research essay. You should also consider whether the source provides sufficient coverage of the topic. Information sources with broad, shallow coverage mean that you need to find other sources of information to obtain adequate details about your topic. Information sources with a very narrow focus or a distinct bias mean that you need to find additional sources to obtain the information on other aspects of your topic. Some questions to consider are:
- Does the information relate to my topic, research question, or angle in my working thesis?
- Who is the source’s intended audience?
- Is the information at an appropriate level (e.g., not too simple or advanced) for my needs?
- Did I look at a variety of sources before deciding to use this one?
Authority: The Source of the Information
Key Question: Is the person, organization, or institution responsible for the intellectual content of the information knowledgeable in that subject?
Determining the knowledge and expertise of the author is an important aspect of evaluating the reliability of information. Anyone can make an assertion or a statement about some thing, event, or idea, but only someone who knows or understands what that thing, event, or idea is can make a reasonably reliable assertion about it. Some external indications of expertise are:
- a formal academic degree in a subject area
- professional or work-related experience, e.g., businessmen, government agency personnel, sports figures, etc. who have expertise in their areas of work
- active involvement in a subject or organization by serious amateurs who spend substantial amounts of personal time researching and studying that subject area
- organizations, agencies, institutions, corporations with active involvement or work in a particular subject area.
HINT: Be careful of opinions stated by professionals outside of their area of work expertise.
Accuracy: The Reliability, Truthfulness, and Correctness of the Information
Key Question: How free from error is this piece of information?
Establishing the accuracy, or relative accuracy, of information is an important part of evaluating the reliability of information. It is easier to establish the accuracy of facts than it is opinions, interpretations, or ideas. The more an idea, opinion, or other piece of information varies from the accepted point of view on a particular topic, the harder it is to establish its accuracy. An important aspect of accuracy is the intellectual integrity of the item:
- Are the sources appropriately cited in the text and listed in the references?
- Are quotations cited correctly and in context? Out-of-context quotations can be misleading and sometimes completely erroneous.
- Are there exaggerations, omissions, or errors? These are difficulty to identify if you use only one source of information, so always use several different sources of information. Analyzing what different sources say about a topic is one way to determine exaggerations, omissions, and errors.
In addition to errors of fact and integrity, you need to watch for errors of logic. Errors of logic occur primarily in the presentation of conclusions, opinions, interpretations, editorials, ideas, etc. Some indications that information is accurate are:
- the same information can be found in other reliable but different sources
- the experiment can be replicated and returns the same results
- the documentation provided in support of the information is substantive
- the sources used for documentation are generally reliable
- the author of the information is known to have expertise on that subject
- the presentation is free from logical fallacies or errors
- quotations are “in context” so that the intended meaning of the information quoted is retained
- quotations, paraphrases, and summaries are correctly cited
Some indications that information may not be accurate are:
- facts cannot be verified or are contradicted in other sources
- sources used are known to be unreliable or highly biased
- bibliography of sources used is inadequate or non-existent
- quotations are taken out of context and given a different meaning
- presence of one or more logical fallacies
- authority cited is another part of the same organization
- inclusion of emotionally laden language
Purpose: The Reason the Information Exists
Key Question: Who is this information written for, and what is the author’s purpose?
Identifying the intended audience of the information and identifying the author’s purpose are other important aspects of evaluating information. The intended audience of an item generally determines the style of presentation, the level of technical detail, and the depth of coverage. Determining the intended audience of a particular piece of information will help you decide whether or not the information is too basic, too technical, too general, or just right for your needs. The intended audience can also indicate the potential reliability of the item because some audiences require more documentation than others. For example, items produced for scholarly or professional audiences are generally produced by experts and go through a peer review process. Items produced for the mass market frequently are not produced by experts and generally do not go through an evaluation process. Some indications of the intended audience are:
- Highly technical language, complex analysis, very sophisticated/technical tools can indicate a technical, professional, or scholarly audience.
- How-to information or current practices in “X” are frequently written by experts for practitioners in that field.
- Substantive and serious presentations of a topic with not too much technical language are generally written for the educated lay audience.
- Popular language, fairly simple presentations of a topic, with little or no analysis, can indicate a general or popular audience.
- Bibliographies, especially long bibliographies, are generally compiled by and for those doing research on that topic.
You should also consider the author’s purpose. Is the information intended to inform or persuade? Does the author intend to present a bias? While it is unlikely that anything humans do is ever absolutely objective, it is important to establish that the information you intend to use is reasonably objective, or if it is not, to establish exactly what the point of view or bias is. There are times when information expressing a particular point of view or bias is useful, but you must use it consciously. You must know what the point of view is and why that point of view is important to your project.
Review the steps of the CRAAP method and practice evaluating sources in the following tutorial from Eastern Michigan University. Be sure to complete the practice exercises at the end of the tutorial. (You may also access the tutorial and activity in a text format.
- Is the source professional?
- Does it seem like current design?
- Is the website user-friendly?
- What kinds of images are used?
- Is the navigation menu well-labeled?
- Are there spelling or grammar errors?
- Do the pages appear uncluttered?
- Are there ads or pop-ups on the page?
- Are links working?
- Was it reproduced? If so, from where? Type a sentence in Google to verify.
- If it was reproduced, was it done so with permission? Are a copyright and/or disclaimer included?
Keep in mind that everything is written from a particular social, cultural, and political perspective. Realize that some publications tend to be "slanted" towards a certain viewpoint. For example, the CATO Institute is known for being libertarian, while The Nation is known to lean left. Keep these slants in mind when you are researching.
Evaluate each of the sources you plan to use for your research paper by applying the questions of the CRAAP test. Summarize your findings for each of the sources. For those sources that are websites, also evaluate the design and the originality of the source.
Writing at Work
The critical thinking skills you use to evaluate research sources as a student are equally valuable when you conduct research on the job. If you follow certain periodicals or websites, you have probably identified publications that consistently provide reliable information. Reading blogs and online discussion groups is a great way to identify new trends and hot topics in a particular field, but these sources should not be used for substantial research.
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