Lesson 6

Lesson 6

Evaluating Sources of Information

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the purpose and necessity of evaluating information
  • Recognize six criteria for evaluating the validity of published information
  • Understand the academic value of information published in Wikipedia

Estimated time to complete: 60 minutes.

Why Evaluate?

Not all information is created equal. Whether the information source you are using is a printed book or periodical article or an electronic document you have found on the Internet, the fact that information has been published does not in itself make it a valid source. It is difficult to judge the validity of information in a subject about which you know very little. However, help is available! There are some aspects of information sources – whether they are on the Web or in print – that you can analyze if you know what to look for:

  • Authority – Who is the author of the information source?
  • Timeliness – The date of publication may be an important factor in evaluating an information source, especially in subject areas – such as science and technology – where currency is significant.
  • Documentation – Just as your research paper must include a list of references, a scholarly book, article or Web page ought to contain a list of sources consulted, a bibliography, and/or footnotes.
  • Purpose – What seems to be the purpose of the author and, in the case of a Web document, the purpose of the Web site on which it appears?
  • Suitability – Is the information too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your needs?
  • Review Process – Does the information appear to have been critically reviewed prior to publication?

Web Sites and Research

While books and periodical articles found on the library shelves and in the library databases are reviewed by publishers and subject experts before publication, many Web pages found through search engines like Google or Yahoo! are not checked for accuracy or credibility. This lack of quality control allows everyone to publish their opinions and ideas on the Internet, including many people who may not be experts on the topics they write about. In light of these facts, you must think critically about what you find. If you suspect that a Web site that you want to use may not be credible, try to corroborate (To corroborate means to prove, validate, confirm, strengthen or support with other evidence) the information in question with facts from other information sources.

It is the researcher’s responsibility to evaluate the information found and judge its quality. It is challenging to sift through a huge amount of information and identify sources that are reliable and appropriate. This module covers several evaluation criteria (Criteria are standards on which a judgment or decision may be based.) you can use in the evaluation process, and highlights questions to ask and points to consider when evaluating any information source.

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Authority

Questions to Ask

  • What are the author’s credentials?
  • Does the author have expertise on the subject?

Is the Author Qualified?

  1. Search for contact information such as a name, e-mail address, or institution.
  2. Search for the author’s credentials. Is the author affiliated with a university, organization, institution, or association? Search for the author’s name in a library database such as Academic Search Complete or WorldCat to find out about whether or not the author has other publications.
  3. Search the author’s name on Google. Is he or she listed as author of other Web publications?
  4. Is there an organization, publisher, or corporate author listed? Who is producing or sponsoring the site? A university? A government agency? An organization? Is the organization profit or nonprofit? Do you see a university or corporate logo? Is the site someone’s personal Web page?
  5. For a Web site, look at the site’s address. Is the top-level domain .edu, .gov, or .org? These domains indicate that the source is an educational, government, or non-profit institution and may indicate higher reliability, but this does not automatically make it an authoritative or reliable source.
    • If you cannot tell anything about the producer of the site from the page you are on, delete part of the Web address after the main address or first forward slash (/). This will take you to the home page of the site. From there you may be able to find out who is sponsoring it.
    • Many Web sources do not give the identity or credentials of the author or producer. Sources that do not give this information have questionable reliability.
  6. Check a biographical source< >There will be many times during your years in college and later in life that you will need to find biographical information about a person. The library has dozens of biographical sources in the reference area. A researcher often doesn’t know which one will contain information on the person of interest. Some basic sources to try are the following:Articles: Find articles in databases such as: Literature Resource Center, Literary Reference Center, ProQuest Learning: Literature, or Academic Search Complete.
  7. Encyclopedia articles: Look in encyclopedias for a brief summary of an author’s life. Use the library catalog to find print encyclopedias or look online at databases such as Biographies (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
  8. Books: Do a subject search in library catalog to find print books that detail a person’s life.. Also check eBooks on EBSCOhost for possible eBooks
  9. Note: See Lesson 4 for more information on the various types of information sources as well as the retrieval methods and search strategies for finding these sources.
  10. Read a critical review
    • A review is a critical evaluation which will often provide information about the author. By reading reviews, you can determine the quality of a book or movie.
    • Book Reviews: Books are reviewed in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. Ordinarily a book will be reviewed within a year after it is published, although it may be reviewed later.  The following are three sources for finding book reviews:
    • Note: See Lesson 4 for more information on searching for reviews.

Timeliness

Always consider the nature of your subject area. For subjects such as medicine, science, business, and technology, the newest and most current information is important. New breakthroughs frequently appear, and older information may not be useful or valid. On the other hand, for subjects such as history and literature, older materials may be just as valuable as newer ones.

Questions to Ask

  • When was the information published?
  • Is the date of publication important to the subject matter?
  • Is the information current enough for your needs?

Is it Timely

  1. Look for a publication date, a last updated date, or revised date.
  2. Determine whether it is important to use current sources for the subject you are researching.
  3. If you are using a Web resource, do the links to other Web sites or pages work?
    • Broken links can indicate that a Web site is not being updated, and may provide outdated information.
    • If a date is provided, it may have various meanings. For example, it may indicate when the site or page was first written, last revised, or first published on the Web.

Documentation

Documentation in a document further solidifies its legitimacy.

Questions to Ask

  • Does the author refer to other works?
  • Does the source have a bibliography?

Is There Documentation?

  1. Does the author support his or her statements with data or references to research?
  2. Does the author display knowledge of the field the article is addressing?
  3. Look at the end of the source for a bibliography or list of references.

Purpose / Bias

Questions to Ask

  • What is the purpose of the source?
  • Is it to inform, persuade, present opinions, report research, or sell a product?
  • For what audience is the source intended?
  • Is the source popular or scholarly?
  • Does the source show any bias?
    • What opinions (if any) are expressed by the author?
    • If there is discussion of an issue, are both sides presented or is it one-sided?

Keep in mind that there are eight general types of Web sites:

  1. Commercial
  2. Educational
  3. Entertainment
  4. Hoax
  5. Informative
  6. Organizational
  7. Persuasive
  8. Personal

Is it Biased?

  1. Read the source you are evaluating. Look for clues in the text and illustrations.
  2. Determine whether the source is published by an organization with a particular purpose.
  3. If it is a Web site, look for links to pages that tell more about the content of the Web site such as About this Site.
  4. Determine whether the source attempts to sell a product or promote a particular point of view. Also, see if it presents a balanced view.
  5. Look for any advertising.
  6. Determine whether the material is scholarly or popular in nature by using the following criteria:
Scholarly Journal Popular Magazine
Signed (author/s listed). May be unsigned (no author).
Written by an expert. Author’s position & institution is usually indicated. May be written by freelance writer or someone outside the field.
Specialized language of the discipline. Geared towards scholars, researchers or professionals. Simpler vocabulary. Written for the general public.
Purpose is to report on research. Purpose is to entertain or inform the public.
Articles are usually lengthy. Articles are usually short.
Usually includes cited references at the end. Articles seldom have cited references.
Many journals are peer-reviewed. Not peer-reviewed.
May be published by an association or scholarly press. Published by for-profit companies.
Articles usually include graphs, charts, or diagrams. Articles frequently illustrated with photos or other illustrations.
Few advertisements (print copy). Many advertisements (print copy).

Using the purpose / bias criteria listed above, review all three tobacco Web links listed below. Match the Web site with its main purpose.

Suitability

Questions to Ask

  • Does the source contain the information you need?
  • Is it written at a level you can understand?

Is it Suitable?

  1. Read the source. If it contains too much technical or specialized language, or if it is written by experts for other experts in the field, you may wish to choose another source.
  2. Determine whether the information is too general or too specific for your need.

Review Process

  • If the source is a periodical article, was it reviewed before publication?
  • If the source is a book, what is the reputation of the publisher?
  • If the source is from the Web, was there any review process at all prior to the page being posted?
  • Was it critically reviewed after it was written?

Has it Been Reviewed?

  1. To find out whether a journal is peer-reviewed or refereed, review the front pages of the print journal. You can also double check the status on the journal’s web page. In GALILEO, you can also limit your search to peer-reviewed journals using databases such as Academic Search Complete.
  2. Information may be published by an association, a university press, a commercial publisher, or a government. If you know something about the publisher, you can often identify bias and point of view.
  3. Many web sources are not reviewed before being posted; however, government, educational, and organizational sites usually have some sort of review process. Beware of personal home pages hosted by educational institutions. If no review process is stated or evident, you may assume there is none. Misspellings and incorrect grammar are good indications that a source has not been reviewed.
  4. Read a critical review of books or movies
    • A review is a critical evaluation. By reading reviews, you can determine the quality of a book or movie.
    • Book Reviews: Books are reviewed in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. Ordinarily a book will be reviewed within a year after it is published, although it may be reviewed later. The following databases are two sources for finding book reviews:
    • Movie Reviews: Like books, films are also reviewed in magazines and newspapers. Movies are also reviewed on the Internet by a variety of Web sites. The following are two sources for locating movie reviews:
    • Note: See Lesson 4 for more information on searching for reviews.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia can be a useful resource for finding background information on a particular topic, especially popular culture. However, you should not cite a Wikipedia article in a research paper. Even Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, discourages academic use of his creation.

Why? Wikipedia is a type of encyclopedia. Encyclopedia articles provide basic facts and background information. They do not defend an argument or sustain critical analysis. No encyclopedia article is acceptable as the main information resource for a college-level research writing assignment. North Carolina State University Libraries provides this YouTube video, Wikipedia: Beneath the Surface (6:41), to explain what goes on behind-the-scenes at Wikipedia:

Summary: What is a wiki? How does information get into Wikipedia in the first place? Who creates it? This short animation introduces viewers to what goes on behind-the-scenes so they can make the best use of what’s on the surface.

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Date last modified: 2/18/2015
Contact Saxony Betts for questions or comments.
Based on Connect for Success by Tara Cassidy at Virginia’s Community Colleges. Used with permission.