Library:Evaluating Information Sources
You will need to evaluate each resource you use for research, whether it is an online or print journal article, a website, a book, a newspaper article, or other source that you want to cite. Use the questions in this guide to analyze materials and to assess how appropriate they will be for your research. Keep in mind that many publications have a particular bias or agenda, which may not be obvious at first glance.
- Don't expect to be able to answer every question, all the time, for all information resources you look at.
- Rather, try to use the questions as a tool to help you look at sources critically.
|Credits: Evaluating Information Sources is an amalgamation of two previous webpages: Criteria for Evaluating Internet Resources, originally developed by Aleteia Greenwood and Professor Douw Steyn; and Criteria for Evaluating Print Resources, originally developed by Aleteia Greenwood, with invaluable expertise from Deb Wilson, Douw Steyn and Lee Gass. The current combined page features new categories and examples and is maintained by Ursula Ellis and Shawnna Parlongo|
It seems obvious to state that no one is an expert at everything but it's easy to overlook an author's credentials - especially when reading something online.
- some authors write to share the results of their research with other scholars
- some are hired to produce articles for the general public
- some are passionate amateurs
- some publish fabricated or unproven research for a variety of reasons
Anyone with an internet connection has the potential to publish and distribute information - it's up to you to assess whether or not the materials you find have been written by an authority on the subject.
- Is there an author of the work? If so, is the author clearly identified?
- Are the author's credentials for writing on this topic stated? For instance, journal articles often list the university or organization the authors are affiliated with.
- If the author is affiliated with an organization, could this organization have a bias?
- Have you seen the author's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? Repeated citations by others and a substantial body of work by the author can indicate expertise.
- Does the source represent a group, organization, institution, corporation or government body?
- For online sources, is there a way to contact the author and/or organization?
Why Question the Author or Source?
If you cannot find an author or an organization connected to a source, be very suspicious. If no one wants to stand behind the work, why should you believe what is written there? Even if you can find an organization or author you still need to be cautious and make sure that the organization and/or author are who they say they are. This may include further research on a particular author or organization. The website alexa.com lets you check ownership of a website and find out what other sites link to it. Also, note that even if an author is an expert in one field, she or he may not have expertise in another field.
Scholarly or not?
- Is the work written by an expert in the field? (i.e., credentials? institutional affiliation?)
- Is the work written for a scholarly/academic audience? (i.e., peer-reviewed? scholarly publisher?)
Why Question whether the Material is Scholarly?
Some materials that you find will be written by academics, for an academic audience - and their authority, accuracy and scope will be relatively easy to analyze and some will be written for a general audience - with qualities that are equally easy to assess.
Unfortunately, you will also easily find materials which are trickier to categorize, such as:
- work by scholars which has been adapted and simplified for a general audience
- promotional articles written for professionals in the field
- articles written by journalists
- theses & dissertations
- work published by groups with a well-known political bias
- government reports, briefing notes and documents written for the general public
- work from experts commenting outside their areas of expertise
In fact, many of the sources which come up in a typical results list are not scholarly - and you won't be able to use them if your assignment specifies "scholarly sources only."
- For more detailed tips and suggestions to help you distinguish between scholarly and non-scholarly work consult our overview of Scholarly versus Popular Sources.
- Is the source part of an edited or peer-reviewed publication?
- Can factual information be verified through references to other credible sources?
- Based on what you already know about the subject, or have checked from other sources, does this information seem credible?
- Is it clear who has the responsibility for the accuracy of the information presented? Is it on a site like Wikipedia which can be edited by anyone?
- If data are presented in graphs or charts, is the source of the data clear?
Why Question the Accuracy of a Source?
In the scholarly publication process there are a number of steps journal articles go through called peer-review. When an author submits an article an editor can assign it to two, sometimes as many as four, independent referees, who have similar expertise to the author. The referees review the article and write reports that recommend acceptance, acceptance with minor changes, acceptance with major changes, or rejection. Acceptance rates vary depending on the prestige of the journal, and the entire process can take up to a year.
When you search the web, you will usually find a combination of online scholarly journal articles (many provided to you by UBC Library) and other websites. While individual websites may be written by experts and have some sort of editing process in place, there is no overall system for vetting the web. This lack of review and revision process means that not all Web pages are reliable or valuable. Documents can easily be copied and falsified, or copied with omissions and errors - intentional or accidental.
Data presented in a source may be original work by the author, or may be taken from another source. Just because data is presented in an attractive graph or chart, it doesn't mean it's accurate. For more information on good and bad graphs, see Gallery of Data Visualization.
- Is there a date stating when the document was originally created?
- Is it clear when the source was last updated, revised or edited?
- Are there any indications that the material is updated frequently or consistently to ensure currency of the content?
- If online, are any links to other websites current?
Why Question the Currency of a Source?
Currency of information is particularly important in the sciences as findings can change drastically in short periods of time. How current the source you are looking at is relevant because you want to know that the information is updated or revised if necessary. On the other hand, some sources may remain authoritative even though they are older. Some older sources are "seminal works" which represent the starting point of a new discipline, or the jumping off point of a new way of looking at a problem. An example is Alan Turing's article, "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis," in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, 237B, 37-72, 14 August 1952.
- Is the page free of advertising? If the page does contain advertising, are the ads clearly separated from the content?
- Does the page display a particular bias or perspective? Or is the information presented factually, without bias?
- Is it clear and forthcoming about its view of the subject?
- Does it use inflammatory or provocative language?
Why Question the Objectivity of a Web Page?
If advertisements are present look for a relationship between the content of the page and the advertising. Are the advertising and content connected? Ask yourself if the sponsors of the advertisements could have sponsored the research reported.
For example: You find a Web page about a vitamin supplement and the page has advertisements flashing over it, selling the same health supplement. Be cautious and skeptical that the content of the page is without bias. Make sure that the information is factual, not just testimonials of satisfied 'customers'.
Check other sources to verify the information. Look closely at how information is presented. Are opinions clearly stated, or is the information vague? It is acceptable for a page to present a biased opinion, but you as the consumer of the information should know what that opinion is, it should be clear, not hidden.
- Does the source update other works, support other works you've read, or add new information?
- Does the source cover the topic comprehensively, or does it only cover one aspect? Make sure to analyze enough sources to obtain a range of viewpoints on all facets of the topic.
- For books, a table of contents and index can be helpful in assessing the coverage of the work.
- For online sources, is the site complete or still under construction? Does the source seem stable, or is it likely to change much between the time you read it and the time your research is finished?
- For online sources, if there is a print equivalent to the website, is there clear indication of whether the entire work or only a portion is available online?
Why Question the Coverage of a Source?
Be wary of sites like wikis whose content may change rapidly and dramatically.
If you are looking at a website for which there is a print equivalent check to see if the entire work is online. If it is a portion of the work make sure that quotes have not been taken out of context or information has not been misrepresented.
Purpose and Audience
- Why was the source created - to educate? sell a product? advocate a viewpoint?
- Is the publication aimed at a general or a specialized audience?
- Is the source too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your research needs?
- Which parts of the information presented are fact and which are opinion?
Why Question the Purpose and Audience of a Source?
You want to ensure your sources are at the appropriate level for your research, and distinguish between facts and opinions. What is the difference between fact and opinion?
Facts are usually verifiable. Opinions may be based on factual information, but evolve from the interpretation of facts. Most scholarly work will contain both; for example, scientists develop interpretations of data from several points of view successively in their writing. Each point of view expresses the implications of a different assumption. Think of these writings as the interpretations themselves (i.e., a record of the process of interpreting). That record of process is extremely valuable to you when you find and recognize it because it gives you models for your own thoughts (either to emulate or avoid).
What are Primary Sources?
Primary Sources are the direct evidence or first hand accounts of events without secondary analysis or interpretation. A primary source is a work that was written or created at a time that is contemporary or nearly contemporary with the period or subject being studied.
The definition of a primary source can change depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used - Humanities, Social Sciences and Sciences have unique types of materials which qualify as primary sources.
- Learn about finding primary sources in Humanities disciplines
- Learn about finding primary sources in Social Sciences disciplines
- Learn about finding primary sources in Science disciplines
View the following video for a brief recap of the highlights from this guide:
- Accurate sub-titles have been uploaded. Click the Youtube Subtitles/CC icon to turn them on.