Evaluating Information Sources
Choosing reliable sources of information is part of the art of research. Reputable sources lend weight to your argument and help convince a skeptical reader that you made a credible effort to understand your topic. Disreputable sources make your work look careless -- making it easy for a critical reader to summarily dismiss your arguments. This guide is designed to help you choose the kind of reputable sources that are likely to make a good impression on readers in an academic or a professional context.
- Who is the author?
- What are the author's qualifications and credentials?
- Is the author affiliated with a reputable university, research center, or government agency?
- Are the author's credentials related to the topic? Is a doctor of medicine qualified to write about car repairs?
- Who is the publisher of the book, journal, or website?
- Does the publisher have a reputation for publishing reliable and unbiased information?
Examples of reputable publishers are university presses (Oxford University Press, University of Texas Press), scientific and academic publishers (Elsevier, Routledge, Wiley), professional associations (American Psychological Association), well-established commercial publishers (Knopf, Macmillan), government agencies (National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Justice), and universities (except students' personal websites).
- Does the publisher use an editorial process to select documents for publication and verify their accuracy?
Scholarly journals are usually peer-reviewed -- every article is reviewed by a panel of experts before it is accepted for publication. See Scholarly Journals and Popular Magazines for hints about how to identify scholarly journals. The peer-review system has also been adopted by some book publishers and websites. Check each book or website for clues about whether the publisher uses peer-review to select content for publication. Other publishers use professional editors to select and evaluate content for their books, magazines, newspapers, and websites. In such cases, each source can be judged on its content and the reputation of the publisher for using good editors. Lastly, some documents are self-published by the author. Most personal websites fall into this category. Such documents can only be judged by their content, so it is hard for your readers to know if the source is reputable.
Accuracy and Objectivity
- Are sources of information clearly indentified with references or a list of works cited? Sources of factual information should be clearly listed so the reader can verify information by checking the original source.
- Does the format and appearance seem professional? Are there spelling or typographical errors?
- Is the information one-sided? Does the author or publisher appear to have a bias?
- Is the information consistent with information you already have from other sources?
- Is the information advertising a product or service? Are advertisements clearly differentiated from content?
Content and Currency
- When was the information published? Is the information up-to-date? When evaluating websites, look for the date each page was first written, when each page was last updated, and how frequently the pages are updated.
- Who is the intended audience? Is the content appropriate for unversity-level work?
- Is the content useful?
- Is the topic covered thoroughly?
- What time period is covered?
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