Why do I Need to Evaluate My Sources?
Some searches may lead you to sources that are unreliable, inaccurate, out-of-date, or otherwise not suited to your information needs.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?
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.
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?
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?
Is the information still relevant? 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?
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?
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?
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.
Instructors often ask students to find “scholarly”, “academic”, or “peer reviewed” sources of information for their research. These terms all refer to the same type of information – sources based on in-depth research, and are considered higher in quality and more reliable for your research.
These sources can range from chapters within books or entire books, or journal articles, but all have common characteristics that can help you recognize that type of information.