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6.1: Your readers expect you to find and cite reliable sources

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  • You want a CRAAP source, not a crap source.

    If anyone tries to tell you that librarians don't have a sense of humor, just tell them about CRAAP. This acronym was developed by librarians to help students evaluate sources. Using CRAAP will help you determine which sources are good to use in your essay and which sources are crap.

    Currency: the timeliness of the information

    The date a source was published or produced tells you how current it is or how contemporaneous it is with the topic you are researching.  For example: If you were doing a project 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 doing a project 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

    Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs

    When you read through your source, consider how the information might effectively contribute to your paper. You should also consider whether the source provides sufficient coverage of the topic. Sources with broad, shallow coverage mean that you need to find other sources to obtain adequate details about your topic. Sources with a very narrow focus or a distinct bias mean that you need to find additional sources to obtain further information or other viewpoints on your topic. Sources written for experts, and requiring the expertise of experts to understand, might not always be the best sources if you yourself can't understand them. Likewise, sources written at too simple a level might be intended as introductions to the topic, and thus not relevant to the kinds of more nuanced arguments that you will be making. Some sources merely summarize a lot of other sources, for example and article that offers "12 Tips For Better Sleep." You would be better off following the sources for just 1 or 2 of these tips. 

    You also want to know if a source helps you to meet any source requirements. If your assignment requires a "Peer-Reviewed Journal Article" or an "Academic Source from a library database", then you want to make sure that's what your source is.  If your assignment says "use only two sources", then you want to be very particular about the sources you use. 

    Some questions to consider are:

    • Does the information relate to my topic or answer my question?
    • Does this source meet any source requirements?
    • Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too simple or advanced)

    Authority: the source of the information

    Determining the knowledge and expertise of the author(s) and the organization that sponsors or publishes the work is an important aspect of evaluating the reliability of a source. Anyone can make an assertion or a statement about some thing, event, or idea, but only someone who studies or understands what that thing, event, or idea is can make a reasonably reliable statement or assertion about it. And, as discussed in Relevance, you're better off with a source that does in depth into 1 topic that it has the authority to speak to rather than a source that gives you "12 tips to  ..." Look for 

    • a formal academic degree in a subject area
    • professional or work-related experience–business professionals, government agency personnel, sports figures, etc. have expertise on their area 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

    Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the information

    Establishing the accuracy, or relative accuracy, of information is an important part of evaluating the reliability of a source. Students are familiar with double-checking the facts in a source. Good sources will be transparent and open about where their information comes from. It is also important to consider the relative accuracy of opinions, interpretations, and ideas, that is, the intellectual integrity of the source. Always look at a range of sources. if you find a source that contains ideas that can't be found in any other sources, then the source is either incredibly creative and important to your work OR it is irrelevance information that no other sources have bothered to talk about because of it's irrelevance. Consider these questions:

    • Are 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? (Note that these are difficult to identify if you use only one source of information. Always use several different sources of information on your topic. Analyzing what different sources say about a topic is one way to understand that topic.)
    • Do other sources share the evidence and general conclusions of this source?

    Purpose: The reason the source exists

    Identifying the intended audience and purpose of the source is another aspect of evaluating information. The intended audience generally determines the style of presentation, the level of technical detail, and the depth of coverage.

    You should also consider the author’s objectivity. Is he/she trying to persuade? Does he/she present any 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. Be wary of using sources sponsored by companies that benefit from selling the produce or services.

    Bias is not inherently bad. In fact, most sources are driven by at least some bias. If a source didn't have a bias, it wouldn't have a clear reason for existing. Researchers don't study car safety out of curiosity; rather, they want to make cars safer. That's a bias. What you should be careful about are hidden biases. For example, Planned Parenthood is biased. It clearly states its bias for women's right to choose any birth control option, including abortion. That doesn't means that an article published by a representative of Planned Parenthood is unreliable. On the other hand, crisis pregnancy centers have a hidden bias. They market themselves as other options for women seeking birth control options for unwanted pregnancies. But, they do not offer any options for terminating unwanted pregnancies.

    [Check out this article about Crisis Pregnancy Centers on the website Blood and Milk. What biases do you see here? Compare that to this article from the American Medical Association)]

    The following are some indications of the intended audience:

    • highly technical language, complex analysis, very sophisticated/technical tools can indicate a technical, professional, or scholarly audience
    • how-to information or current practices 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, little or no analysis, inexpensive tools can indicate a general or popular audience
    • bibliographies, especially long bibliographies, are generally compiled by and for those doing research on that topic


    Adapted from "CRAAP Analysis of Print Sources", published by Lumen Learning, CC-BY-NC-SA