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Information Literacy: Evaluating Sources

A guide to information literacy for students and instructors.

Evaluating Sources

Remember that for a source to be considered credible, it must first pass the following criteria:

  • CurrencyWhen was the information published or updated?
  • RelevanceWho is your audience? How much and how technical is information do you need?
  • AuthorityIs the author respected in their field?  Are the articles peer reviewed?  
  • AccuracyCan the source be verified with sources you know are trustworthy?
  • PurposeIs the information unbiased? 

Currency

Establishing Currency

Books and Databases often contain information on when they were written.  For Databases, the information is generally on the same page as the link to the article.  For books, you’ll find it on the back of the title page. 

Websites have the advantage of being able to update at any time.  This can often ensure that the most recent information will be available for public consumption.   However many websites have been abandoned and contain out of date information.  For medical and technical fields, this can often have disastrous results as these fields of study are constantly changing.

Check for a current date on the website.  If there is not date posted, try out some of the links available.  If there are several dead links on the page, then it is likely that the information on the page is out of date as well.

When was it posted?

Most reputable sites will contain several dates to look at.  For example, when reading an article from the NASA website you can see the date and time for when each article was posted.  If a website does not have this information, try checking for a copyright date.  If the copyright isn’t a current year, then it is possible that the information listed is out of date.

Relevance

Establishing Relevance

Relevance considers two items: Subject Depth and Audience. 

If you are researching topics over types of medical treatment do you need items for a specific illness or is it all medical treatments in general?  If you are talking about the difference in graphics card capabilities, are you sampling all cards or just those for PC?

You must also consider your audience.  Are you writing for your instructor?  Your peers?  A journal?  A trade magazine?  Your audience will determine how technical your language can be.  Someone in the field of aviation may have a different definition of PAX than someone who’s been to Penny Arcade Expo.  Most of the time, you’ll be addressing your instructor in a professional setting but if in doubt, consult your assignment and see if there is any specification on audience or depth of subject.

Website Appearance Matters

Remember that your instructor may check your sources, especially if it is a site they have not heard of before.  Your paper may lose credibility if the source you are referencing looks unprofessional with spelling and grammar errors, popups, and a poor layout.  Keep in mind that the sources you use reflect your judgement… or lack thereof.

Authority

Establishing Authority

Start by examining a webpage’s URL (more information found here) to establish what type of website you are accessing.  Once established, you can move forward to find the author.

For Books, eBooks, and Database articles, finding an author’s name is generally not difficult.  You can generally look at the title page to establish the name.  For websites, try looking for an About page.  This can often give a clue to the author’s credentials if it is a person you’ve never heard of before.

If all else fails, look for contact information so that you can obtain their credentials from the source directly.

Finding a Website's Author

The owner of the website can generally be found by looking at the title page, about page, or copyright notice.  For example, if you look at the bottom of the TSTC webpage you can see it is copyrighted to Texas State Technical College.  For a challenge, try the Wikipedia homepage and see if you can find out who the owner is.

If you are unable to tell who owns the site, trying looking up the owner on easywhois.com.  Simply type in the domain name (e.g. www.wikipedia.org) and you will find the name of the organization who owns the domain.

Accuracy

Establishing Accuracy

Many webpages suffer from a lack of quality control. Unlike print publications, most webpages do not have to undergo editing or fact-checking, and there are no real consequences for publishing information that is false, biased, or misleading. Moreover, it is relatively easy to make a professional-looking webpage, even if the information on the page is not accurate. For these reasons, you should always verify information you find on unfamiliar webpages using sources you know and trust.

Print and Database accuracy is fairly easy to establish.  As both undergo an editing or fact-checking process, it is easy to assume that a majority of these types of resources are accurate.  Website are quite different as they lack formal control. 

The easiest way to establish accuracy is to ask yourself if the information can be verified with the research you’ve done so far.  If the information seems too good to be true then it likely is. 

Is This Information Real?

Take for example the website Fun Facts about James Buchanan.  It contains a list of facts that might seem plausible… at first.  However, if you collaborated with other sources you might find that 12 year old James Buchanan was not replaced by Sacagawea on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

That website too easy?  Many were fooled by the RYT Hospital website. Citing quotes from fake groups (IHA), the website boasts that the fictional medical center's "cutting-edge" accomplishments such as the first male pregnancy, a prescription that requires only 12 minutes of rest each night, and other advances in nanotechnology.  While convincing in appearance the information contained on the page are false.  

Purpose

Establishing Purpose

When using a website take note of its purpose.  If you are researching the potential risks of a particular drug, then a website designed to sell the product may not provide unbiased information to the public.  It is always good to look at an unfamiliar resource with a skeptical eye.

Purpose can be established by looking at the author of the website and paying strict attention to how the information is presented.

Finding Bias

Referencing a biased source is a good way to damage your academic credibility and spread/receive misinformation.  Bias, or leaning one way or another on a particular topic/subject, means that the author may not be straightforward in the facts they present and their results may be skewed towards a favorable outcome.  It isn’t always a lie but it’s not the whole truth.

Types of Bias

The following are common types of biases that can skew information.  Be aware if the information is presented from the following standpoints/sources:

  • Political
  • Religious
  • Hate groups
  • Industrial (commercial)
  • Cultural
  • National

Does It Past the Test?

Western University. [Western University]. (2015, June 30). Evaluating Sources [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/EyMT08mD7Ds

Details Matter

James is looking at a paper based on this presentation.  He sees the following graph:

That is a lot of cool!  But what James doesn't realize is that the creator of the graph is hiding some of the real facts.  For example, that 10 looks fairly impressive until you find out that the survey's criteria listed it as 1-100, not 1-10.  Meaning that a more accurate graph would look something like this:

It is these sorts of details that you should look when establishing a resource's credibility.