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How To Do Research

Evaluating Information

Video Thumbnail: Evaluating Sources
Video: Evaluating Sources

What's Appropriate to Use in College-Level Work?

Both popular and scholarly sources can be either credible or biased. The Internet has broadened the spectrum of and access to lots of different information in many formats.

There are plenty of examples of information sources that are credible, yet still not appropriate to use in college-level work. When it comes to sources that you want to cite in your paper or essay, you'll want to seek out sources that are credible and also scholarly

Evaluation Criteria

Since anyone can publish information online, it’s important to know whether or not a source is authoritative. To be an authority on a subject, an author must be accepted as an expert by professionals in his or her field.

For example, an article in an academic journal is likely to be more authoritative than a personal blog post.

You can determine the accuracy of a source by researching the author’s

  • credentials
  • affiliations
  • and other published works.

For sources found online, this type of information is displayed on the About Us page.

Accurate sources rely on the objective interpretation of evidence. Scientific reports, for example, often include a methodology section that describes the research process to validate the author’s conclusions. These types of sources typically are peer reviewed, meaning their content has been reviewed by experts on the topic.

Investigating a source’s references will help you assess its accuracy. Ask yourself:

  • Is the information provided specific?
  • For real world topics are the  data and information based on observations, measurements, analyses, interpretations and conclusions?
  • For more creative topics like in arts & humanities, what are the recording names, and the dates and places creative works, ideas, and opinions originated from?
  • In all cases, all information should be verifiable. Are conclusions based on research or actual figures that can be checked in other sources?
  • Are methods of scientific research explained in such a way that it could be reproduced?
  • Are sources of information listed in foot/end notes, bibliographies, or lists of references? How reliable are the cited sources?

The date that an article or any other source was published can be crucial to your research. If your topic is tied to subjects that change very quickly, such as law, medicine, science, or technology, a recent date is important.

Currency is determined by the date the source was created. Depending on your subject, a source’s currency may determine its usefulness. In the science and technology disciplines especially, advances are made at a rapid pace, which means past results quickly become dated or discredited. But new isn’t always better.  Sometimes older sources may be required to better understand current advances on a given subject.

  • In all cases, there should be some indication of the date of the material. If research results are given, consider not only the date of the publication but also when the research was actually conducted.
  • In the arts and humanities, currency needs to be judged as appropriate. In some cases, a study written years ago may be essential to understanding.
  • Consider whether or not the timeliness of the information will affect its usefulness.
  • It is important for information found on the web to be up-to-date. 
  • There should be some indication of the date of the material, but be aware that the "Last updated" date of the web page may differ from the date of the content.
  • You may need to check three dates on a website, the date the page was last updated, the date of publication, and the date of the research or statistics used.
  • Also note, many web pages show today's date-- which may not be the date of last update.

The value of a source depends on its relevance to your research question. First consider how much the resource covers.

  • For background information, try an overview article or encyclopedia entry.
  • For more in-depth information, you’ll want to consult sources that discuss your specific research topic.

Closely analyzing what a resource does or doesn’t discuss will help you choose sources that align with your research need.

Objectivity relates to a resource’s purpose and point of view. When a source is objective, it means the creator uses evidence rather than personal opinion to reach logical conclusions. Biased sources, on the other hand, may present evidence in a way that supports predetermined conclusions. Other sources even may intentionally distort the facts to poke fun at a person or event.

 Even experts can have an agenda for producing articles and books, so you need to figure out the purpose for the material.

  • Authors often have their own agendas, Is it to sell products, influence legislation or capture converts? =When using any information resource, you must decide whether the information is sufficiently objective for your purpose or whether it is biased. Of course a highly biased presentation can be included in scholarly research as long as that bias is described and weighed against alternative views or interpretations.
  • Is there any advertising or solicitation for donations associated with the source? This  financial support may skew the subject coverage by the publication.
  • Does the author provide more than one point of view?
  • Does the writing use inflammatory or biased language?