How to Evaluate Sources
Thinking critically about information and its sources means being able to separate facts from opinions. After considering the following issues, you can decide whether the information is appropriate for your purposes.
• Decide whether the information is useful, reliable, or appropriate for your purposes.
• Verify information and know its source.
• Determine whether the facts are current.
• Know why someone offered the data at all.
Source evaluation means that you assess print and online publications for information relevancy, accuracy, and reliability. What is the type of source, e.g., an Internet web site or a scholarly article from an academic journal? Why were these particular sources chosen? How do the sources work together to produce a response to your research question? How do the sources relate to one another and to your research question.
The first judgment you’ll make is whether the source you’ve found helps answer your research question/thesis statement. If it isn’t relevant, abandon it. But if it relates in any way—to support or to contradict your own working hypothesis—note it in your research log (see http://www.comcol.umass.edu/academics/deansbookcourse/dbcresources.html#log), plan to include it in your literature review, and, especially if it’s a web source rather than a library database source, prepare to evaluate it further using the criteria for Evaluating Web Sources (below). With very little exception, web sites are not acceptable for the research paper you’re writing for an honors level class. One exception is a government (.gov) web site that provides data or information such as census data or information stored at the National Archives.
Relationship to other sources
Whether it’s a library database or web source you’re evaluating, consider its relationship to other sources you find. Does it agree with some sources but contradict others? Does it amplify information presented elsewhere? Does it offer a unique perspective or new set of facts?
Relationship to your own research question & hypothesis
Note also each source’s fit with your own research question and working hypothesis. Does it corroborate your initial thesis? Contradict it? Modify it somewhat? Or perhaps prompt you to reframe the starting question itself?
Evaluating Web Sources
Reasons to Evaluate: Web sites vary greatly in quality and stability. Many are maintained by academic institutions, professional organizations, governments, and individual scholars that uphold rigorous and carefully documented standards. However, any individual or organization can create a web site without having to be reviewed by an editor or a publisher.
We use the information we find on the Internet or web for a variety of purposes. Sometimes we use it for entertainment, recreation, or casual conversation. When we use the information for research, we have to be sure the information is reliable and authoritative. That puts us in the position of having to verify information and make judgments about whether it is appropriate. We need to think critically, as opposed to using information just because it’s easily available to us or published on the web.
Popular search engines like Google and Yahoo provide almost instant access to millions of unvetted, uncensored web sites in the public domain of the worldwide web. The volume can be overwhelming. Googling “New York City” produces about 150,000,000 sites in 0.24 seconds. Narrowing the search to “‘New York City tourism” produces 78,800 in 0.39 seconds. The ten listed on the first page are not necessarily the most informative or reliable. They are the sites most visited—and often they’re most visited because they’re on the first page. When using Google or any other search engine like it, you need to evaluate sources carefully for yourself. Use common sense, then use essentially the same criteria you would use for print sources, modified to fit the web.
• Author/Authority: Is the site signed or otherwise attributed to an author? Is that author reputable or affiliated with a reputable institution? If you don’t recognize the author, check the name in a library database for other publications. Or Google the author’s name to learn more.
• If the author is a person, does the resource give biographical information about him or her, including any of the following: educational and other credentials, position, institutional affiliation, and street address.
• If the author is an institution, is there information provided about it, including the purpose and history of the institution, in addition to a street address?
• Have you seen the author’s or institution’s name cited in other sources or bibliographies?
• The URL can give clues to the authority of a source. A tilde ~, a person’s name, or the word “users” or “people” or “members” in the URL usually indicates that it is a personal page rather than part of an institutional web site. Also, make a mental note of the domain section of the URL, as follows:
.edu educational (anything from serious research to zany student pages)
.gov governmental (usually dependable)
.com commercial (may be trying to sell a product)
.net network (may provide services to commercial or individual customers)
.org organization (no longer restricted to non-profit or tax exempt institutions; may be biased, whether non-profit/tax exempt or not)
• Affiliation/Sponsor: If no author is given, consider the institution or organization sponsoring the site. If you don’t recognize the sponsoring group, again try Googling it to learn more. Even if you do think you recognize the sponsoring group, be sure it’s not a false site mimicking or satirizing the legitimate one. Check the URL: if its suffix is .edu or .gov or .org, the sponsor is probably trustworthy, but consider the purpose for which you plan to use the source then make a decision. If the suffix is .com or .net, the site could be reliable and legitimate, but it could also belong to anyone with access to a for-pay server.
• Accuracy: You may not know all the facts, but you can use what you do know to make reasonable judgments about a site’s accuracy.
o First, is the writing correct and coherent?
o Second, are ideas supported by factual evidence and logical reasoning?
o Third, is the presentation of information consistent within itself?
o Fourth, is the information consistent with information presented in other reliable sources? Some disagreement among sources is to be expected, but major discrepancies should be carefully scrutinized.
• Age: Is there a date on the web page? Is the information up to date? If you are researching an historical event, using an old source may be appropriate. Some older sources are influential, even seminal, and therefore again appropriate to use. But other topics require the most current information and most all are subject to revision and reinterpretation.
• Audience: Is the web page intended for the general public, scholars, practitioners, children, etc. Is this clearly stated? Does the web page meet the needs of the intended audience?
• Bias v. Objectivity: Is the purpose of the information to inform, explain, persuade, market a product, or advocate a cause? Is the purpose clearly stated? Legitimate authors make claims and arguments, but they acknowledge they are doing so and do not disguise an opinion as fact. Ask yourself some questions. Does the author present both sides of an argument fairly or one side as self-evident and the other absurd? Is the language rational or inflammatory? Is the purpose of the site to inform or sell (a product or position)? What messages do the site’s icons, images, and pop-ups convey? Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, or institutional biases? Is the content intended to be a brief overview of the information or an in-depth analysis? If the information is opinion is this clearly stated? If there is information copied from other sources is this acknowledged? Are there footnotes if necessary?
DuBois Databases: In some situations, we don’t have to evaluate the web source we’ve found. Some information is screened before it comes to us, such as information retrieved on any of the DuBois Library Databases (JSTOR, Academic Search Premier, etc.) When we retrieve information from an academic or research library, either by using the web or by visiting in person, we rely on professional librarians who have evaluated and selected the material. Information in a database that’s been prepared by a scholarly or commercial organization is often evaluated and checked for correctness before it’s made available. Articles and reports published by scholarly organizations, research labs, and government agencies often go through an independent review process before being published. Some librarians and other information specialists have established virtual libraries on the web where they review, evaluate, and list reliable sources of information on the World Wide Web.
Wikipedia — A Note: Wikipedia is not a search engine but a large and extremely popular, often-cited online encyclopedia. It is not, however, scholarly or trustworthy. Like Google and Yahoo, the information is not professionally monitored, and it should never be cited in a college-level research paper. Built on the wiki design, it allows readers to edit, add to, and monitor its content. Visit Wikipedia, and read the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia. Beware of misinformation. An American student recently invented software capable of tracing Wikipedia edits to their sources. What did he discover? Edits were often made by individuals representing institutions with a vested interest in the information promulgated. Because of the many errors Middlebury College professors found in student papers citing Wikipedia, the college’s history department recently banned its use. Middlebury College is not alone. You should never cite Wikipedia in any paper your write for Professor Brown-Pérez’s class. Consider it banned.