Why do I Need to Evaluate My Sources?
The internet and search engines like Google and the library’s databases have made it possible to find lots of different types of information on almost any topic, but not all information is created equal. Some searches may lead you to sources that are unreliable, inaccurate, out-of-date, or otherwise not suited to your information needs. Before using any information source—either for an academic research assignment or to guide an important “real life” decision—it’s essential to evaluate the credibility and relevance of that source. Learning to think critically about information sources is an important first step in that process.
How Do I Evaluate My Sources?
There are many questions you can ask about a source as you try to determine whether to rely on it. Start with the “5 W’s and an H” that are sometimes referred to as “the journalist’s questions”: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
Are they identified by name? Do they have relevant experience, training, or other qualifications that would make them an expert on the topic? Are they recognized by peers in their field as credible and trustworthy? (Remember, though, qualifications vary depending on the subject area and your information need. An artist or auto mechanic might not need a college degree to be good at their jobs and respected by their peers, but many would worry if their doctor, lawyer, or university professor didn’t have a degree. Context matters.)
You might call it an essay or article, but what is it really: is it a blog post, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal article, a book review, a personal diary entry, a news story, a work of short fiction, a government report, a press release? (If each of these source types appeared on a website, they might all look exactly the same, but each has a different purpose, a different tone, and different value depending on your information need.)
Is the information still valid and relevant, or does its age compromise its value as a credible source? A computer science textbook from 1985 is likely to be unhelpful if you’re trying to fix your new computer, but it might be very helpful if you’re writing about the history of computer science. Does the time between the event or idea discussed and the publication of the source help or hurt its credibility? A tweet or Facebook post shared on the day an event happened might be less accurate than an article published in a news magazine months later after careful investigation revealed facts that weren’t initially known.)
Some sources are very selective about what they publish and they use editors or peer-reviewers to maintain a high standard of authority and credibility. Other sources allow almost anyone to publish anything they want without any editorial oversight or fact checking. Likewise, some sources strive for objectivity or a balance of viewpoints; other sources have clearly defined political or philosophical biases. An article about hydraulic fracturing that you find on an environmental activist’s blog is likely to have a different agenda than an article published by a public relations director for the American Petroleum Institute. Both sources might be completely factual and supported by evidence, but it’s important to evaluate whether an inherent bias or agenda compromises the potential value of the information.
Are the author and publisher sharing scientific research findings or informing readers about something? Are they providing facts, sharing opinions, or making arguments? Are they trying to sell something or convince readers to vote in a particular way? Are they trying to entertain readers or satirize something? Are they hoping to convince people to do something or change the way they think about a certain topic? Thinking about the rhetorical purpose behind an information source might make you more aware of its biases.
Is the information presented in the source based on scientific studies, personal interviews, analysis of collected data, or personal experience—or is it a work of imagination or opinion without supporting evidence? Are there references to other important works, citations of other texts, or a list of sources the author consulted? Does the source include graphs, charts, tables, or other illustrations to share information, or does it include eye-catching images or typography to attract readers’ attention. Does the publication use formal language and include an abstract, literature review, methods, and discussion section?
Information comes in many forms and can be accessed in many formats through many platforms. You might, for instance, learn about an event in a newspaper or magazine, online or in print, on a radio or television broadcast, via Twitter or Facebook, or in an encyclopedia, textbook, or even in a fictional novel. Each of these forms follows its own conventions and there are strengths and weaknesses of each as sources of information. Your information needs are dependent on context, so there’s no such thing as the single best source of information for all research questions or problems. Sometimes you need the kind of basic information found in an encyclopedia or almanac, sometimes you need the up-to-the-minute updates of Twitter or live television news coverage, sometimes you need the scientific analysis of carefully gathered data offered in peer reviewed scholarly journal articles. Evaluating the sources you find is an important first step in determining whether the source can meet your information needs.