Evaluating Sources Ask an ipl2 Librarian Digital Reference Student and Volunteer Training Created July 17, 2010
Information Quality Matters
Evaluation is a particularly important step for information-related activities.
In particular, websites are susceptible to both accidental and deliberate alteration.
Once you locate books, articles, essays, web pages or other documents, evaluate those sources of information.
Try to develop a general understanding of the purpose, value, perspective, and quality of any source you use or recommend in your ipl2 answers.
How do you make sense of what is out there and evaluate its appropriateness for your ipl2 user?
Consider six basic criteria :
As a first step, try to identify the author of the content.
The author can be an individual or a corporate entity . If you can identify authorship, you should verify that this person or entity is sufficiently credentialed to provide information on the topic.
You can use encyclopedias, biographies, or search engines to conduct background checks on authors.
Consider whether the sponsor could have an agenda that might influence the content of the site. What are the basic values or goals of the organization or institution?
Look for a header or footer showing affiliation.
Look at the URL (for example, http://www.fbi.gov )
Look at the domain: . edu, .com, .ac.uk, .org,
Consider these examples:
Does this site have an author? http://www.pinknoiz.com/coldwar/
Is this author an expert? http://www.virusmyth.net/aids/
Who is the sponsor of this site? http://www.factcheck.org/
Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic?
For some questions received from ipl2 users, finding the most current information is critical!
Questions in the areas of science, technology, health, politics, and civic information often require the latest information for accuracy.
For websites, dates should be provided for when the material was first written, when the material was first placed on the Web (or, the start of the site), and all subsequent revisions.
Note: the dates listed for a website may not represent the date of publication for content accessed through the site, as some websites will link to many different sources.
Answers.com is an example of one such site.
Some authoritative sources make older content available for free online, but keep the most recent versions fee-based.
To determine objectivity :
Investigate the possible bias of the author. Through a background check or prior knowledge, you can determine whether an author or sponsor might have a bias. Check to see if the language free of emotion-arousing words and bias.
If there is advertising, determine whether it is clearly identified and separated from information content.
Examine the website to see if it presents more than one point of view about the topic.
Never assume that extremist points of view are always easy to detect .
Consider these examples:
Is this site objective? http://www.fairus.org/site/PageServer?pagename=iic_immigrationissuecenters6ce3
How about this one? http://www.martinlutherking.org/
Is this medical science or a product promotion? http://www.lucidal.com/
Ask yourself the following questions to determine coverage :
Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information?
Does it extensively or marginally cover your topic?
You should explore enough sources to obtain a variety of viewpoints!
Coverage may differ depending on whether the source is print or electronic.
It is often difficult to determine the extent of coverage of a topic from a web page, because the web page may or may not include links to other web pages or print references.
To determine the extent of coverage for a certain topic, consider the following:
Is the website complete or under construction?
Is the information supported through citations to other works?
If there is a print equivalent, does the web source contain the same amount of information?
Are links annotated and do they relate to the content of the source?
Is the information freely available? Is only a part of the information free with a significant part costing a fee?
Is special software needed to view web content, such as Adobe or a Microsoft application?
The best way to determine the accuracy of a source is to verify the information it provides with alternate sources.
This is one of the reasons why ipl2 policy requires that you provide answers multiple and diverse sources, whenever possible.
Check for errors in the content to ensure reliability.
If applicable, check for errors in the presentation of statistical information.
Look for references to support the content, and,
Try to determine if any editorial process exists for the source.
Check to see if the information you found answers the user’s question completely , in part , or not at all .
Simply, because something is on the topic of interest does not mean it will answer the question!
Investigate fully the potential usefulness of the source to the user.
If a source is only tangentially related to a user’s question, then indicate that is the case in your response.
Consider the source’s intended audience
What type of audience is the author addressing?
It is highly unlikely that the same sources relevant to an adult asking about the history of civil war in the United States will be relevant to a grade school student.
Is the publication aimed at a specialized or a general audience?
Is this source too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your needs?
For more about evaluating sources we recommend:
Beck, Susan. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: or, Why It’s a Good Idea to Evaluate Web Sources . 1997. Available online: http://lib.nmsu.edu/instruction/eval.html
Kirk, Elizabeth E. Evaluating Information Found on the Internet. 1996. Available online: