Library:Evaluating Information Sources/Authority
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.