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Library DIY: Using Sources: Evaluating Sources

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Q: How do I know if a source is reliable and okay to use for my project?

This is a really good question and one that many people are grappling with in the larger world. 

The internet has opened up the doors to freedom of expression and sharing of ideas. While this can be great, it puts more responsibility on individuals trying to discern the truth to be smart and thoughtful evaluators of information.

What do we want?

Generally, if we're using sources for academic work, we want sources that are current, relevant, authoritative, accurate, and with an educational/informational purpose. 

Current: You'll usually want research that is up to date and hasn't been disproven. What counts as 'up-to-date' will vary based on the field you're studying. For example, if you are researching medieval art, you may find some of the best articles on your topic from the 1920s. If you are researching biochemistry and immunology, articles from the 1930s will be extremely out of date, you'll want to mostly stick to research done within the last ten years. 

Relevant: In most cases (a few capstones), you shouldn't have to bend over backward to make the research fit with your paper topic or research question. If you're struggling to find research that fits, try broadening your search, a different search strategy, or possibly revising your research question. (Librarians are happy to help with any of this!)

Authoritative: Who is the author of the source and what evidence can you find to believe what they say? Authority is contextual and comes both from formal credentials, possible biases and lived experiences. The funding that research receives might also influence the authority of a source.  Are they a Professor of History writing about Labor History? Or are they a Professor of History writing a book about how you can cure allergies with a paleo diet? Are they a Nasa scientist writing about ocean pollution? Or are they a Fossil fuel industry spokesman writing about oil pollution?

Accurate: Some information is put into the world with the intention of misleading others. Sometimes two studies may be conflicting because of different methods, different application of methods, or random error. Sometimes people put their ideas out there disguised as fact with little to no evidence or cherry-picked evidence. This can sometimes be the most difficult to determine. Academic sources are not immune to inaccuracy, but they tend to be more accurate as a whole because they are sharing research undertaken in a specific way. In determining if a source is accurate, look for what kinds of evidence they provide (anecdotal or systematic), how they use statistics, their word choice (more bombastic words=less likely to be accurate), and any transparency about reasons why it might not be accurate (If an author admits that they might not be 100% right, they are more likely to be more accurate and sharing information in good faith.)

with an educational/informational Purpose: People share information for all sorts of reasons. Ideally, if you are planning on trusting information from a source, that source should be written to educate and not to persuade. Sometimes this is obvious and it comes in the form of advertisements in-text or dramatic language. Sometimes it can be more subtle, like a missing information of one line that a study on calcium content in certain foods was funded by "The society for healthy bones".. which turns out to be an organization created by the dairy industry.  

Each of these criteria are part of something called the CRAAP test. Here's a list of questions that might help you evaluate a source.

Examples:

Keep in mind:

These are on a sliding scale and they all interact with one another. There is no 100% good source because we all have our own individual biases, but try to examine and think critically about how they author confronts their biases and beliefs (This evidence might be in the text or outside of the text) as well as what they expect you to do with the information they're providing. Evaluating information is an important skill that will help you in college, in the workplace, and in your life.

Email us at askmcgill@westminster.edu to learn more and meet with a librarian who will help you evaluate your sources!

 

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