Being able to critically evaluate the information you encounter is a hugely valuable skill. Why? Because not everything you read is true. And sometimes information can be technically true, but still be so biased, selective, or leading as to make the information essentially useless for research purposes.You may encounter other problems with your sources as well. The information may simply be too out-of-date to be useful. Sometimes the authors aren’t experts on what they’re writing about. And sometimes the problem isn’t the accuracy of the information, it’s the lack of detail and substance. Would you really want to use a book written for a juvenile audience as a source in a college paper?
Whether you’re getting information from a book, magazine, newspaper, cable news channel, online forum, medical website, or email, there are simple criteria you can use to evaluate the information you encounter. This presentation will introduce you to the five criteria we recommend you apply to your potential sources whenever you conduct college-level research.And being a critical consumer of information is helpful not only in your classes, but also in your daily lives. Just as you need the information in your college papers to be based on reliable, quality sources, you also want the health advice, product reviews, and other kinds of information you personally use to be reliable.
These are the five criteria to be aware of whenever you evaluate your information sources. We’ll look at each in detail.
ACCURACY If you’re not already an expert on a particular topic, it can be difficult to determine whether or not the information in a book or article, or on a web page, is accurate. Ask yourself these questions:
Is the information in the article cited? An article with references or citations is far more likely to be accurate because the information can be verified by going to the original sources. If statistics are given, do the authors say where the statistics come from?
Are there typographical errors? Spelling or grammar errors? If so, you’ll want to be very careful about using that article as a resource. Bad or non-existent editing usually means that the information in the article hasn’t been closely reviewed.
AUTHORITY Have you ever noticed how political advertisements on television end with “I’m [insert a candidate], and I approved this message”? The reasoning behind the law requiring this tag line is pretty simple. If a candidate isn’t held personally accountable for the ads he or she runs, they’re more likely to make wild and irresponsible claims. By attaching their name (and reputation) to the ad, the candidate is less likely to exaggerate the truth and unfairly smear their opponent. That’s the thinking, anyway. The broader point is this: Who is accepting responsibility for the quality of the information in a given resource? Sometimes it’s a group or organization, rather than an individual author, who is responsible. Once we know who’s responsible for an information source, we can ask: are they an authority on the topic?
Is the author qualified to write this document?
Is the book, article, website, etc. written in their area of expertise?
Is the author affiliated with an educational institution?
OBJECTIVITY When we talk about objectivity, we’re really talking about bias. What are the biases of the authors or the organization behind the information? Bias isn’t necessarily bad. Just because an author or organization has a particular point of view doesn’t mean that their information is inaccurate or lacks authority. The very reason that many groups exist is to forward a particular position or ideology, and they often collect or generate a lot of high-quality research. That said, you will want to be aware of the biases of the authors or groups. And in order to write a well-rounded paper, you’ll likely want to collect information from the other side of the issue as well. When all your information comes from just one side of a debate, your paper will lack balance and perspective.
OBJECTIVITY Also, when you’re using websites as sources for your papers, pay close attention to the advertising that appears on the site. The purpose of some websites is to sell a particular product. While they may host articles as well, the articles are basically just ads for the product. Also, companies will occasionally run elaborate advertisements on legitimate websites that can look very similar to articles, but are in fact just promotional materials. Don’t be fooled, and don’t use these sites or articles as resources for your papers.
OBJECTIVITY Ask yourself… Is the information fact, opinion, or propaganda? Is the information well-researched? Is there a bibliography or citations or references at the end? Is the author objective and un-biased? Bias isn’t always bad, but you’ll always want to be aware of what the author’s bias is.
CURRENCY Some research projects require very up-to-date information in order to be accurate. For example, if you’re researching present-day population statistics, you won’t want to use the 1980 census figures—they’re just too old. When we talk about currency, we’re talking about how current the information is in a book or article. For some projects older resources might be fine. For many, though, currency is a major issue.
CURRENCY Ask yourself: When was the book, article, or website published or produced? You’ll often find a website’s publication information at the bottom of the page. If you’re using a website, when was it last updated? How many dead links are on the site? This is important to check, because many websites have been created and abandoned in the last 15 years. Is the information outdated? (It may have been current at one time, but is it still?) For some subjects, like history, this may be less important. For others, like technology, currency is critical.
COVERAGE Earlier when we talked about objectivity, we also talked about bias. While bias isn’t inherently bad, you don’t want your total pool of resources to reflect the same bias. Otherwise you’re only getting part of the picture. In part, this is what “coverage” asks: what part of the picture are you getting with your information resource?Think about the scope of the book, article, or website you want to use. Are the authors omitting important aspects of the topic? For example, sometimes lazy authors presume facts. You might find a website that offers a theory as to why humans use only 10% of their brains. Sounds great, except that the site would be based on an urban legend. We actually use 100% of our brains. If the authors wanted to argue against this established scientific fact, they’re free to do so. But the website didn’t bother to cover that. It just assumed that part of the argument.
COVERAGE More generally, ask yourself: Does the resource add new information or does it simply compile information easily found elsewhere? For example, I occasionally read a science blog where the entries are simply cut and pasted (badly) from other science articles around the web. This makes the site absolutely unacceptable for college research, definitely riddled with plagiarism, and liable to be sued and shut down one day. Does it extensively or minimally cover the topic? Is the information well-organized? Are the main points clearly presented? Is the target audience identified and appropriate for your needs?
Website Domains Finally, just a quick word about website domains… As you probably know, all websites have domains. Carteret Community College has a .edudomain, as do most colleges and universities. Only colleges and universities are eligible for .edudomains, so information found on .eduwebsites is generally considered to be more reliable than that found on other domains.
Website Domains Another domain generally considered to be reliable is .gov. The federal government collects and compiles a massive amount of information every year, and is required by law to make most of it available to the public. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to access government information, you’d have to travel to a library that was part of the Federal Depository Library Program. This could mean a couple hours of driving and even more time spent digging through indexes for citation numbers. These days government documents are regularly made available online. Even better, simple database interfaces (and Google) make them easy to search for. All government information appears on .govwebsites. So if you find yourself using statistics or information from a .govwebsite, chances are the material is quite reliable.
Website Domains .org domain websites host non-profit organizations. These sites are generally considered more reliable than commercial websites because the website maintainers have no profit-based reason for providing the information they do. But it’s worth noting that nearly anybody can start a non-profit organization. So be sure to apply all the 5 criteria we’ve talked about carefully to .org websites. Finally, .com domain websites are for commercial use. The vast majority of websites you encounter will be .coms. Absolutely anybody can start up a .com site, so the information found on them runs from extremely reliable to utter lies and fabrications. It’s essential that you apply the 5 criteria whenever using .com websites. That said, some of the most useful websites out there are .coms, so don’t be afraid to use them in your research. Just be very careful.
Remember: If you ever have questions or need assistance, ask a librarian!