We are constantly surrounded by information, and it isn’t always easy to know which sources to trust. Being able to evaluate the credibility of information is an important skill used in school, work, and day-to-day life. With so much advertising, controversy, and blogging going on, how do you sift through the chaff and cut to the chase?
- Think about how reliable you need the information to be. Everyone has different standards for credibility, and often this depends on how the information is going to be applied. If you’re writing an academic paper in a university setting, for example, you need to be especially strict about sources. If you’re looking for information on how to unclog your toilet, a comprehensive Internet search might suffice. If your project falls somewhere in the middle, such as if you’re making a presentation at work or creating a website, it’s important to evaluate sources and make a judgment call as to whether you should include the information and if so, how it should be presented.
- Consider the medium with which you are working. Generally, the more that is invested into the creation and publishing of the material, the more likely you are to find reliable information. For example, printed material has a higher cost of production than an Internet blog, which anyone can publish for free. A peer-reviewed journal is considered the most reliable source because each article must undergo a rigorous review process, with many professional reviewers involved. This isn’t to say that you should completely avoid Internet sources (a blog published by a distinguished scientist commenting on a study could be useful) nor should you immediately trust a well-researched publication (material sponsored by large corporations, for example, can be highly biased). Take everything with a grain of salt.
- Research the author. A source is more credible if written by someone with a degree or other credentials in the subject of interest. If no author or organization is named, the source will not be viewed as very credible. Some questions that you should ask about the author are:
- Where does the author work?
- If the author is affiliated with a reputable institution or organization, what are its values and goals?
- What is his or her educational background?
- What other works has the author published?
- What experience does the author have?
- Has this author been cited as a source by other scholars or experts in the field?
- Check the date. Find out when the source was published or revised. In some subject areas, such as the sciences, having current sources is essential; but in other fields, like the humanities, including older material is critical. It’s also possible that you’re looking at an older version of the source, and an updated one has since been published. Check with a scholarly database for academic sources (or an online bookstore for popular sources) to see if a more recent version is available. If so, not only should you find it, but you can also feel more confident about the source–the more printings or editions, the more reliable the information.
- Investigate the publisher. If the publisher is a university press, the source is likely to be scholarly.
- Determine the intended audience. Scan the preface, table of contents, index, abstract, and the first few paragraphs of the article or of a few chapters. Is the tone, depth, and breadth appropriate for your project? Using a source that is too specialized for your needs may lead you to misinterpret the information given, which is just as hurtful to your own credibility as using an unreliable source.
- Check the reviews. Find reviews for the source. In the US, you can check Book Review Index, Book Review Digest, Periodical Abstracts. If the book is aimed at a layperson, check reviews online and see how and why others criticized the source. If there is significant controversy surrounding the validity of the source, you may wish to avoid using it, or examine it further with a skeptical eye.
- Evaluate the source’s sources. Citing other reliable sources is a sign of credibility. It is, however, sometimes necessary to verify that the other sources also show a pattern of credibility and are used in context.
- Identify bias. If the source’s author is known to be emotionally or financially connected with the subject, be aware that the source may not fairly represent all views. Sometimes research is necessary to determine relationships that indicate the possibility of bias.
- Be conscious of wording that indicates judgment. Conclusions that describe something as “bad or good” or “right or wrong” should be examined. It is more appropriate to compare something to an objective standard than to label it with words that represent abstract concepts. Take for example, “…these and other despicable acts…” vs. “…these and other illegal acts…”. The latter describes the acts in terms of the law (an objective source, somewhat) whereas the first example judges the actions according to the author’s own belief of what is a despicable act.
- Investigate the financial or funding sources for sponsored research. Determine the sources of funding for the study conducted to get an idea of the potential influences on the study. Various sources of funding can sway the information presented or the way a study is conducted in order to align with their own agendas.
- The more radical the ideas presented in the source (in comparison to other sources on the same subject) the more carefully you should scrutinize it. Don’t dismiss it completely; Gregor Mendel’s work was cited only three times, criticized, and ignored for 35 years before his discoveries in genetics were recognized in the field of science.
- If a source doesn’t pass the above guidelines, it doesn’t mean that the information contained within is false. It just means that it doesn’t carry as much weight in compelling someone to believe it.
- Beware of using Wikipedia as a source for academic or journalistic writing. While a scientific study showed that Wikipedia is as accurate as professionally generated enclyclopedias, it is generally considered not credible enough for use in articles where accuracy is of extreme importance, since anyone can edit nearly any of the entries.
- How to Cite Sources
- How to Reference Sources on wikiHow
- How to Cite a Wikipedia Article in MLA Format
- How to Be a Skeptic
Sources and Citations
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 http://www.library.cornell.edu/olinuris/ref/research/skill26.htm
- ↑ http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/research/r_evalsource3.html
- ↑ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mendel
- ↑ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4530930.stm
Article provided by wikiHow, a collaborative writing project to build the world’s largest, highest quality how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on How to Evaluate the Credibility of a Source. All content on wikiHow can be shared under a Creative Commons license.
Stop by the Reference Desk.