Evaluating Sources: Overview
Evaluating sources of information is an important step in any research activity. This section provides information on evaluating bibliographic citations, aspects of evaluation, reading evaluation, print vs. online sources, and evaluating Internet sources.
Contributors: Dana Lynn Driscoll, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-01-24 02:05:54
The world is full of information to be found—however, not all of it is valid, useful, or accurate. Evaluating sources of information that you are considering using in your writing is an important step in any research activity.
The quantity of information available is so staggering that we cannot know everything about a subject. For example, it's estimated that anyone attempting to research what's known about depression would have to read over 100,000 studies on the subject. And there's the problem of trying to decide which studies have produced reliable results.
Similarly, for information on other topics, not only is there a huge quantity available but with a very uneven level of quality. You don't want to rely on the news in the headlines of sensational tabloids near supermarket checkout counters, and it's just as hard to know how much to accept of what's in all the books, magazines, pamphlets, newspapers, journals, brochures, Web sites, and various media reports that are available. People want to convince you to buy their products, agree with their opinions, rely on their data, vote for their candidate, consider their perspective, or accept them as experts. In short, you have to sift and make decisions all the time, and you want to make responsible choices that you won't regret.
Evaluating sources is an important skill. It's been called an art as well as work—much of which is detective work. You have to decide where to look, what clues to search for, and what to accept. You may be overwhelmed with too much information or too little. The temptation is to accept whatever you find. But don't be tempted. Learning how to evaluate effectively is a skill you need both for your course papers and for your life.
When writing research papers, you will also be evaluating sources as you search for information. You will need to make decisions about what to search for, where to look, and once you've found material on your topic, if it is a valid or useful source for your writing.
Evaluating Sources: Evaluation Criteria for Seeking Relevant, Useful and Accurate Information
As you conduct research, preferably structured research, evaluate every single source. Your first run through of evaluation criteria takes place as you are selecting which sources to use. When you have additional time, re-evaluate the source a second time. Do not make the mistake of assuming that because a source is found in the library that it is a quality source for an academic research paper.
Ultimately evaluating sources based on the information you need for a specific assignment is the best approach. Use the following eight evaluation criteria to evaluate sources.
Evaluation criteria #1: Authority
Evaluate sources on the authority of the author and the publisher by asking the following questions:
- Who is the author?
- Can you find the authority or credentials of the author?
- Can you find the authority or credentials of the publisher?
- What if there is no author for an internet source?
If you cannot find information regarding the authority of the author or publisher while evaluating sources, you should not use the source. For internet sources without an author, the reliability is in question. Websites or publications by government agencies or well-established non-profit organizations are more reliable even with the absence of a named author.
Evaluation criteria #2: Accuracy
Evaluate sources on the accuracy of information and bibliographic information by asking the following questions:
- Does the information in the article appear correct?
- Does the article have a bibliography or reference list?
- Is it clear where the author got his or her information?
- Is it obvious who is responsible for the information?
If you cannot verify that the information is correct or that the author is an expert on the topic, you should not use the source.
Evaluation criteria #3: Content
Evaluate sources based on the content by asking the following questions:
- Does the content address the topic effectively?
- Are the key questions about your topic answered within the content?
- Does the content seem like it is likely to help your research?
- Does the content provide any information that is new or useful?
While evaluating the content is important, it is not the only evaluation criteria in deciding to use a source. However, if the content is lacking or does not address your topic, you should not use the source.
Evaluation criteria #4: Relevance
Evaluate sources based on relevance by asking the following question: Is the information and content relevant to your research paper topic? Sometimes a source’s relevancy is not apparent until you have read all or most of the information. In many instances, however, you can judge the relevance by looking at the following aspects of a source:
- Table of contents
- Index, when applicable
Evaluation criteria #5: Objectivity
Evaluates sources on their objectivity and bias by asking the following questions:
- Is the objectivity of the source clear?
- Is there any obvious bias?
- Is the purpose obvious?
- Is the sole purpose of the article to give information, or does it promote or try to sell something?
The nature of your assignment and your topic determine how important it is for your sources to be objective. A lack of objectivity is not an automatic reason to dismiss a source if it fits the assignment and the topic while still allowing you to find other sources with opposing viewpoints.
Evaluation criteria #6: Audience
Evaluate sources based on the intended audience of the author by asking the following questions:
- What audience does the author appear to be addressing?
- Is the intended audience a group of experts or a more general audience?
- Is the content too simple, technical or advanced? Or is it well-suited to your topic and assignment?
The intended audience can influence your evaluation of a source, but it should not be the sole factor in your decision.
Evaluation criteria #7: Writing style
Evaluate sources based on the writing style by asking the following questions:
- Is the organization of the content logical?
- Is there a clear presentation of the argument?
- Is the text easy to read? Too wordy? Too formal? Too informal? Too choppy?
The writing style of the author of an original source influences whether the source is appropriate for your topic and assignment. If the style does not fit with what you are trying to accomplish, consider whether you want to keep the source as one to cite or to simply use it to consult.
Evaluation criteria #8: Currency
Evaluate sources based on currency by asking the following questions:
- When was the source published or written?
- Is the time of publication or writing important for your topic?
- Is there more current research available on the same topic?
- Is the date evident for any visual aids, such as graphs, charts or tables?
Currency is only important if your topic dictates using the most recent information available. For example, if you are writing a research paper about the Civil War, currency is not important. However, if you are writing about the effect of a 24-hour news cycle on human sensitivity, currency is important.
When evaluating sources, your assignment instructions play an important role as well because that is what dictates the type of information you are allowed or required to use. For example, if your instructor prohibits you from using internet sources that are not electronic copies of scholarly journal articles, no website or online multimedia is appropriate for your assignment, even if it meets all eight source evaluation criteria.