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Evaluating Sources for Context, Relevance and Authority
There are many ways to evaluate a source but the key to each of them is thinking critically about who wrote the piece, why it was created, what the publication process may have been like to give you clues as to the authority and accuracy, and consider any bias or incentives that may take away from the credibility of the source. Three of the more common methods for evaluating sources are listed in the tabs below: 5 W's, CRAAP, and BEAM.
As you read more literature in the health sciences field, you'll become more familiar with the publications, the authors, and the way scholars and practitioners communicate with one another within their field through publications.
When looking at an information source, try asking yourself the Five W's.
- Who? Who wrote this? Can you even tell? Are they an authority in this topic? Credentials are important, but first-hand accounts are also important. Most importantly, who stands to benefit if you believe this source?
- What? What kind of resource is this? Is it an advertisement? Newspaper article? Scholarly research article? Also, what kind of information does it present? Does the content match up with what you already know about this topic? Are there a bunch of advertisements, either related or unrelated to the topic of the article?
- When? How up to date is the information? And how soon after the event was this published? (We've all seen false reports and misinformation happen shortly after major events like school shootings.) Also, how up to date do you need the information to be? Looking for reviews of classic movies that came out shortly after the cinematic debut versus critical acclaim that came years later can make a big difference.
- Where? Country of origin? How different is the information provided by CNN versus BBC versus Al-Jazeera? Also, where is this information in relation to the structure of the website? Is it on the front page? Is it buried?
- Why? What's the purpose of the source? Is it trying to sell you something? Convince you of something? Also, why are you looking at this source? Entertainment? Medical research? Academic need?
When looking at an information source, consider the following CRAAP Method:
Currency: the timeliness of the information
- When was the information published or posted?
- Has the information been revised or updated?
- Is the information current or out of date for your topic?
- Are the links functional?
Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs
- Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
- Who is the intended audience?
- Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
- Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining that this is one you will use?
- Is this source appropriate for a research paper?
Authority: the source of the information
- Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
- Are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations given?
- What are the author's qualifications to write on the topic?
- Is there contact information, such as a publisher or e-mail address?
- Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source?
- examples: .com (commercial), .edu (educational), .gov (U.S. government), .org (nonprofit organization), or .net (network)
Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content
- Where does the information come from?
- Is the information supported by evidence?
- Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
- Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
- Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion?
- Are there spelling, grammar, or other typographical errors?
Purpose: the reason the information exists
- What is the purpose of the information? To inform? Teach? Sell? Entertain? Persuade?
- Do the authors/sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear?
- Is the information fact? Opinion? Propaganda?
- Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
- Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases?
When you are evaluating different sources make sure they fall into one or more of the four BEAM categories.
Background Sources - Materials that provide an overview of a topic, such as core concepts and facts
- Used for information that is well established in the field.
- These sources serve as the foundation for understanding the topic.
Exhibit Sources - Materials a writer is interpreting or analyzing
- Used to provide examples and/or evidence.
- Depending on your topic and discipline, exhibiting materials can be a novel, a data set, an interview, experimental results, a diary, scholarly books or articles, or any number of primary resources
- Example: If you are researching depictions of working women on TV, an episode of Friends could be a resource for exhibit. If you are researching changes in employment in the United States, statistics from the Bureau of Labor might be an exhibit resource.
Argument Sources - Information from other authors you agree with, disagree with, or build upon
- Used to make claims related to your thesis statement and the argument you're making.
- Citing them puts your research in the context of other scholarship on that topic; it brings you into conversation
- Constitutes the literature review section in many disciplines.
- Note: you use your exhibit sources to explain why you agree, disagree, or want to improve upon your argument sources.
Method Sources - Materials an author follows to determine how they are doing their research
- Used to determine a governing concept or manner of working.
- Can include research procedures, theories, and sources of discipline-specific vocabulary.
- Some methods become so common in a field that scholars do not feel the need to cite them but will presume their readers will know them.
- Example: Scholars who study game theory in economics may feel no need to describe the prisoner's dilemma, while scholars in critical literacy studies may not define "reification."
Thinking Critically About Sources
This chapter of "Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research" details steps and exercises to consider when evaluating and choosing the right sources. Use the red navigation bar at the bottom or the contents button on the left to progress through the chapter.
Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers
This is an unabashedly practical guide for the student fact-checker. It supplements generic information literacy with the specific web-based techniques that can get you closer to the truth on the web more quickly.
SIFT (The Four Moves)
Mike Caulfield's method for evaluating sources relies on four action steps: stop, investigate the source, find better coverage, trace claims, quotes and media to the original context.