The internet and search engines like Google and the library’s databases have made it possible to find lots 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 Some searches may lead you to sources that are unreliable, inaccurate, out-of-date, or otherwise not suited to your information needs.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.
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.)
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?
Is the information still valid and relevant, or does its age compromise its value as a credible source? Does the time between the event or idea discussed and the publication of the source help or hurt its credibility?
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.
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?
How would YOU use this source?