Evaluating Your Sources

Searching skills are not the only part of the pre-writing research process.  Once a possible resource is located, the researcher must determine if the source is relevant.  This process can be further subdivided into two main categories.  First, check and make sure the information found fits the topic of research.  Sometimes online material can be misleading or the online record from a book doesn’t provide enough information and the researcher will need to check the physical book to determine this.  Second, the researcher needs to ensure the material is accurate, reliable, current, and is unbiased.

The evaluation process for experienced researchers is often completed without much thought.  However, it takes practice to gain this skill.  Beginning researchers need to stop and think about their resources.

To provide a framework on evaluation sources, at Ellis Library we taught the CRAAP Test.  Here are the parts:

Currency: The timeliness of the information.
Relevance: The importance of the information for your needs.
Authority: The source of the information.
Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the informational content.
Purpose: The reason the information exists.

While the CRAAP Test is a great mnemonic device to remember the evaluation steps, I don’t think it is the best way to explain the process.  It implies an order different from what experience has shown me.  However, keep in mind I’m more used to historical research and that affects my advice.  Thus without further ado, here’s what you need to remember when evaluating sources.  These tips work for both print and digital material.

Relevance

The CRAAP Test places relevancy second.  I think this step should be checked first.  Why?  If the information is not relevant to the research topic, there is no sense in checking how it meets the other steps.

How does a researcher ensure the source is relevant?  First, check and make sure it provides meaningful information on the topic, such as answers to a question and/or background information.  Second, determine the audience.  Was it written for professionals, students, casual learners, or K-12 students?  For example, if you are in college, you don’t want to use a children’s book. You’ll want something targeted for students or professionals.  Third, how does it compare to other sources on the topic?  Does it add more information?  Or does it just recap details from other sources?  The former is preferred, but the latter can be useful to check and see what facts are common knowledge.

Currency

The CRAAP Test placed currency first, but I place this second.  After determining if the source is useful, it is important to ensure it is up-to-date. First, check and see when the information was published or posted.  If it is too outdated, it should probably be avoided.  While most humanities subjects do not chance much over the years, scientific information is updated almost as frequently as it can be published.  The rule of thumb we learned in library school was that scientific information was considered obsolete except for scientific history after five-to-seven years.  Science and social science information is frequently more current in journal articles as opposed to books, but for social science topics older material could be equally useful.  Publication or posted dates are open to interpretation pending the subject, but the more current the date, the better.  Second, check and see if the information has been recently revised or updated.  If so, use the newer versions.  If not, compare it to other sources and ensure the information is current enough meet your research needs.  Lastly, for information online, check the links.  If too many are broken, the material is outdated and may be in need of revision.  If you chose to use this material, proceed with caution.

Authority and Purpose

Evaluation Checklist

Evaluation Checklist

In my experience, purpose and authority of information go hand-in-hand.  Both look at who wrote the information and why.  To check authority, first see who authored, sponsored, and/or published the information.  Are they from a known sources, like a reputable scholar, publisher, or institution?  If they are, the source should be accurate.  Are there any discrepancies between the author’s credentials and the topic?  If so, the information may not be authoritative.  If the author provides contact information (either directly or via a digital form), that is usually a good sign the information is provided from an authoritative source because this information provides an avenue to communicate with the author.  However, there can be exceptions.  Second, check the URL.  Anyone can register most URL suffixes (.com, .org, .biz, etc.), but only educational institutions can register .edu websites and only government institutions can register .gov websites.  Thus information found at .edu and .gov are generally seen as holding more authority.

To check purpose, there are several points to check.  First, is the information meant to inform, teach, entertain, persuade, or to sell an idea/product?  Unless it is for advertising research, a researcher should only seek information meant to inform or teach.  Entertaining material is not scholarly enough and anything persuasive or promoting products can be heavily biased.  If the material is biased, it is likely to contain more opinions and propaganda than facts.  Also check the source and ensure there are no political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases.  If the source contains these biases only use it as examples with counter-examples from the opposing camp.   Second, are the intentions clear?  If so, make sure those are unbiased and fit the purpose of your and their research. Remember, for material to be unbiased, it must be objective and impartial.

Accuracy

Accurate information first needs to pass muster of all the other evaluation points.  The information must  be relevant, current, authoritative, and not have a misleading purpose.  Information is accurate if it comes from a reliable source, is supported by evidence, has been peer-reviewed or refereed, and/or can be verified in other sources or by previous knowledge.  It should also be unbiased in content, language, and tone.  Accurate sources should be free of spelling, grammar, and formatting errors.

Conclusions

Remember evaluating sources has many interpretations.  When in doubt, ask a librarian or educator for assistance.  Also it never hurts to look for the primary sources for historical research and the original data from scientific or social science study to confirm accuracy.  Lastly, if quotes are involved, follow the citations to ensure that the quote has been accurately represented and is not bent to fit the author’s needs.

Further sources:

MU Libraries’ Evaluating Sources from the English 1000 LibGuide: Details the CRAAP Test

Cornell University Library Critically Analyzing Information Sources: Covers appraisal and analysis of content.

University at Buffalo Finding and Evaluating Research Materials: Provides detailed tips for evaluating books, articles, and websites.

Is this helpful to you?  Do you have any questions about evaluating sources?

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3 thoughts on “Evaluating Your Sources

  1. Pingback: Research | Pearltrees

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