Q. How can I evaluate my sources?
When you are trying to find answers to questions, you’ll want to critically evaluate the sources you find. Whether it’s for a research paper or to guide your own decision making, it’s important to determine whether a source is trustworthy or not. Below are some strategies you can use to evaluate all types of sources.
Analyzing a Source Using P.R.O.V.E.N.
The credibility of a source depends on how and why it was created, the creator’s expertise and objectivity, the accuracy and completeness of the information being presented, whether or not the information is current, and how you plan to use the source in your research. The acronym P.R.O.V.E.N. can help you remember to check for these criteria in the sources you find.
Be sure to think about why the source was created. Is the author trying to educate, entertain, express an opinion, or persuade you to think or act in a certain way? Do the authors, publishers, or sponsors state their purpose or try to disguise it? Think about the author’s motivations and try to determine who their intended audience is. If a claim is being made, what kind of evidence is being used to back it up? Can you find that evidence elsewhere? Read what other people have to say about a claim and, if possible, see if you can find scholarly sources that back it up.
One of the most important considerations you should make is whether or not the source is appropriate for your needs. If you are working on a research assignment, check to see if there are any instructions about the types of sources your instructor wants you to use. Sometimes an instructor will require scholarly, or academic, sources such as peer-reviewed articles and books. However, if you need background information or basic facts, you may want to consult a dictionary or encyclopedia instead. In other situations, first-hand accounts that may appear in news articles or blog posts may be useful. Even if a resource is scholarly and meets the requirements of your assignment, you want to be sure it adds to your knowledge, answers a question, or supports a claim you are making.
One important characteristic of scholarly sources is that they build upon previous knowledge or continue the “scholarly conversation” around a topic and support any new claims with evidence. In order to acknowledge work that has been done before, scholars cite their sources and clearly distinguish where ideas are coming from. They often include multiple points of view and critique others’ perspectives in a respectful, balanced, and objective way. When you encounter any source, remember to ask yourself: Do the authors present the information thoroughly and professionally? Do they use strong, emotional, manipulative, or offensive language? Do the authors, publishers, or sponsors have a particular political, ideological, cultural, or religious point of view? Do they acknowledge this point of view, or try to disguise it? Does the source present fact or opinion? Is it biased? Does it offer multiple points of view and critique other perspectives respectfully? Does it leave out, or make fun of, important facts or perspectives? If the sources you find don’t cite their sources, only present one point of view, or use emotionally charged language and put down others’ ideas, you probably want to avoid them in your research.
Academic, or scholarly, books and journals are some of the most reliable sources of information. They describe studies or provide in-depth explorations of a focused topic. These sources undergo a process called “peer-review” in which other experts in the field evaluate the quality of the research being shared and whether or not the author has made a convincing argument. Although the quality and thoroughness of peer-review can vary by publication, it generally provides a good way of weeding out research that isn’t based on solid evidence. One of the reasons why scholarly articles and books are so highly regarded is that they present new knowledge based on evidence. Often, this knowledge is created with research methodologies that have been tested and are considered reliable tools in the discipline. Learning about the research methodologies that are popular in your chosen field can help you skillfully evaluate the information that is presented in these sources. Even if a resource isn’t peer-reviewed, you can make a determination of its credibility by asking yourself the following questions:
Do the authors support their information with factual evidence? Do they cite or link to other sources? Can you verify the credibility of those sources? Can you find the original source of the information?
What do experts say about the topic? Can you verify the information in other credible sources?
Does the source contradict itself, include false statements, or misrepresent other sources?
Are there errors in spelling, punctuation, or grammar?
Authors of scholarly sources usually have credentials and experience that encourage people to see them as experts or authorities in their fields. Often, these authorities will question each other’s methods or reasoning, which may lead to thought-provoking discussions. This process of questioning and exploring ideas means that previously established claims can, and should, be challenged. Though scholarly sources are generally more dependable because their authors use research methodologies that are respected in their disciplines, and because their findings are peer-reviewed, it is always a good idea to ask questions and look at other sources to see where they agree or disagree on a topic.
When considering expertise, ask yourself:
What makes the authors, publishers, or sponsors of the source authorities on the topic? Do they have related education, or personal or professional experience? Are they affiliated with an educational institution or respected organization? Is their expertise acknowledged by other authorities on the topic? Do they provide an important alternative perspective? Do other authors cite their work?
Has the source been reviewed by an editor or through peer review?
Does the source provide contact information for the authors, publishers, and/or sponsors?
Because things change and new discoveries are made all the time, you should also consider when your source was published. This is especially important in fields like science, technology, health care, and when researching current events. Sometimes, scholarly journals will even retract research that has already been published. Try to find the most recent scholarship on your topic so that you can see how the conversation has developed and changed over time.
When considering newness, or the timeliness of your source, ask yourself:
Is your topic in an area that requires current information (such as science, technology, or current events), or could information found in older sources still be useful and valid?
When was the information in the source first published or posted? Are the references/links up to date?
Are newer sources available that would add important information to your understanding of the topic?
Adapted from: Carey, Ellen. "P.R.O.V.E.N. Source Evaluation Process." CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments), 2017. https://www.projectcora.org/assignment/proven-source-evaluation-process.
Fact Checking a Source
The following strategies are from Mike Caulfield’s free online book, Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers (2017), and can be useful when evaluating online sources.
Find the original source. Who originally published the information and why? Find the original source of the information before evaluating it.
Read laterally. What do other sources say about this publication and author? What a source says about itself may not be trustworthy.
Circle back. How can you revise your search to yield better results? Use what you’ve learned to start over with new search terms.
Check your own emotions. We are more likely to believe something that stirs strong emotions. Be aware of your own biases as you fact-check.As you evaluate your sources, you want to keep an open mind. The first question you always want to ask yourself is: Am I only reading sources that I already agree with? Or am I using this as an opportunity to explore all sides of a question? An essential first step in evaluating information sources is being aware of your own limitations and biases. With so much information available, it’s easy to only read what we already agree with and never challenge ourselves with new ideas or differing opinions.
In order to increase your chances of finding reputable, scholarly sources, use the search tools and databases provided by the library. Find other research on your topic and compare your sources. Chances are, by looking at multiple scholarly sources, you’ll be able to determine what has been agreed upon by the scholarly community and what is still being debated.
There is also a great deal of misleading and inaccurate information out there - including hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation - that make it increasingly important for all of us to be savvy, and skeptical, consumers of information. Many of these sources try to imitate more credible sources to trick you into thinking they are legitimate. The best way to learn how to detect misleading information is to understand how more credible sources are created. High quality research builds on other high quality research. This is true of both your own work and the work of professional researchers who are writing scholarly articles and books. When you mostly rely on well-researched sources to back up the points you make, you are demonstrating your own credibility and authority as a writer.
Your job as a student researcher is to discover the conversation on a topic - which may or may not be limited to the scholarly literature - and share what you learn with your readers. In that way, you are continuing to add to and build upon that conversation, asking new questions and coming up with new answers. By using quality information sources in your own writing, you are demonstrating your own credibility and establishing your authority as a critical consumer and producer of information.
Didn't find the information you need? Contact us via chat, email, or phone. We're happy to help!