5.2 Evaluation of Information Sources
Why is it important to evaluate your sources?
Publishing and distributing information can be very easy - especially on the Internet. Many online tools like wikis, blogs and other social media are free and getting published is as easy as typing up some content and hitting a "create" button. This means that anyone with an internet connection will be able to find a forum to publish his or her ideas. Many people do so without being experts on the topic - or using editors, fact-checkers or other forms of quality control. This is further complicated by the fact that many of these publishing channels come with slick graphics and professional quality site-design. This means that you will have to look beneath the surface to judge the quality of your sources.
- Your assignments will often require that you use scholarly sources, written by experts for an academic audience. After all, you can't make reasoned arguments if your sources aren't credible.
- The best way to ensure that you have a suitable source is to check it out yourself.
What to evaluate?
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 tutorial as a framework 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.
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:
- are experts sharing the results of their research with other scholars.
- are hired to produce articles for the general public.
- are passionate amateurs.
- are experts writing for a general audience, e.g., a scientist writing a children's book or an economist writing a summary for a politician.
- publish fabricated or unproven research for a variety of reasons.
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 there is a named author - make sure that the organization and/or author are who they say they are.
- The website alexa.com lets you check ownership of a website and find out what other sites link to it.
- You can search for an author in a database like Web of Science or Google Scholar to see if he or she has published other work on the subject and if that work has been cited by other authorities.
- Reminder: even if an author is an expert in one field, she or he may not have expertise in the field you are researching.
It's easy to assume that because a work has been published that it's also been checked for accuracy but that is not always the case.
In the scholarly publication process there are a number of steps journal articles go through called peer-review:
- The journal editor typically assigns it to two or more independent referees, who have similar expertise to the author.
- The referees review the article and write reports that recommend acceptance, acceptance with minor or 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.
Note: as with other graphic elements on a website, commonly available software makes it easy to present data and statistics in a professional-looking graph, table or chart - whether the underlying data are reliable or not.
- Data presented in a source may be original work by the author, collected by an official statistical agency, copied from somewhere else or even fabricated - so make sure to look at it as critically as any other element in the source.
- For more information on good and bad graphs, see Gallery of Data Visualization.
It's important to make sure that the scope of your source matches the scope of your research. To do this you'll need to look at the purpose, intended audience and coverage of your source material.
Check out this article in Wikipedia. Ignoring the warning at the top of the article's page:
For a brief recap of the points covered above watch this video: