There’s a ton of information in the world from a ton of different sources, especially giving the increasing accessibility of the internet. While this variety of perspectives can be valuable, you must remember that sources are not equally reliable nor are they all necessarily appropriate for different types of research goals. The primary question you must ask yourself when you encounter any source is “How do I know if the source I’m looking at is telling the truth?”
The answer: The real answer you can’t totally know. There is always a certain element of trust that goes into receiving and accepting information, which is partly why even when you assess that the source is reputable, it will be necessary to assess the purpose of the source and the limits of its application. But let’s back up, because while every source must be viewed within the context of its scope of purpose, there are some sources that scholars, researchers, and readers of all sorts have come to acknowledge as being reputable sources. Reputable Sources have authors or authoring organizations who take responsibility for the accuracy of the content and the presentation of the information. Reputable sources include citations and/or references for their sources. They are transparent about the author, the publishing date, the condition under which the the information was ascertained, and the purposes motivating the presentation of the material. The information and methods in reputable sources can be cross referenced and/or validated by relevant qualified professionals.
Questions to Ask When Assessing Books or Journal Articles:
- Who published the book or journal the article appears in? Generally speaking most scholarly sources are published by a university press or as is the case in the social sciences and sciences by accredited research institutions, or by think tanks and committees that carry the backing of such institutions and/or the government. The most solid sources are peer-reviewed. Peer-review means that other people in this author’s stated field(s) have read this work, commented on it, and have agreed that its methodologies, sources, and treatment of the material are credible.
- When was the book or article published? What experts agreed was relevant and factually true in 1969 is not necessarily what experts agree is relevant and factually true in 2019. Unless one is making a historical analysis of the evolution of how a subject has been talked about, you will most likely want to draw from the more recent scholarship (published within the last 5-10 years).
- What is the ultimate goal of the author, their organization, and the publisher? While pure objectivity is not possible, some sources are more explicitly rooted in a particular agenda. Being agenda-oriented isn’t all bad, but you should know the presentation of the material is likely to be influenced by that agenda which may limit how much weight you can put on the sources presentation and interpretation of the data. However comparing and contrasting different agenda-oriented sources may be a good way to get a feel for various perspectives.
- Note: The biggest mitigating agenda in a lot of sources is the need to make money. Newspapers and magazines and trade books are often quite susceptible to the demands of the market. The need to sell may cause newspapers and magazines to lead with sensational headlines, bias readers with pictures ahead of article, juxtapose articles in ways that suggest scandal or gossip that is not there. The need to sell can also effect the author or reporter.. Knowing what sells or who their reader is, authors might be tempted to play to certain sympathies. Trade books by big publishing houses looking to appeal to broad and diverse audience have a tendency to offer more accessible but often less nuanced or critically reflective information. Such books are often playing to trends and popular interest. Trade books can be good sources, but you must be aware of the scope of interest and motivating factors under which such books are produced.
- Are you asking good questions? Even with a fairly credible source, you want to keep asking good questions? (i.e. Whose opinion is not represented in this material? How might this line of thinking stack up to a comparable subject? Are other people reading this source? What are they saying about it?)
Questions to Ask when Assessing Newspapers and/or Online Articles*
- Who is the author? Can you tell and is he/she a professional/expert/believable source in that field? (i.e. Is it a environmental geo-physicist speaking about the oil spill or a B-list Hollywood actress)
- Does the site and or author have the backing of a major professional organization in his/her field? Do other people in that field speak well of this author? (I.e. Is this someone who received a geo-physicist degree fifteen years ago and never used it or is this the current dean of the Nicholas School for Environmental Studies at Duke University?)
- Does the author and the managers of the website provide methods (email address) of contacting them should you want to engage them more?
- Who published the website?: An individual, a university, a hospital, a member of a professional organization like the National Bar Association or Modern Language Association?
- Does the site bear an official insignia of the organization? Does it have a banner? (This may seem superficial, but these stamps make a site part of an organization that has a responsibility to the information it puts out as opposed to the lone rogue webpage.)
- Can you contact the web publisher?
- When was this material published, revised, and how many users have frequented this site? Are all the links fresh? (If a site has too many dead-end links, it’s a sign that it has not been neglected, the material is not as connected and thus not as validated by others as it could be.
- Can you clearly identify the goals of the site? Do the goals seem to be in-line with the tone and the images of the site? (i.e. Does the tone sound objective, but the goals are too eradicate a whole population of people or does the tone sound logical but the pictures seem intense, full of bright colors and shock value almost like an advertisement. This may be a sign of a site that is more overtly serving as propaganda.)
Coverage and Verifiability
- Can you find the same information at other sites?
- Is the author clear about their methods? Do they mention their sources clearly? Could you retrace the methodology and/or find their sources? Are their sources also from credible sources? (If no, you might be reading a weakly supported article.)
- modified from handout at webcredible.co.uk