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Evaluating Sources (Websites, News, etc.)

Credible Sources

What does credibility of sources mean and why is it important to your academic work?  

When writing a paper or speaking to your audience about your selected topic, you need to use information that is objective, credible,  and backed up factually. Your information must come from sources written by authors with expertise and knowledge.

Websites require careful evaluation and review to ensure that the information they provide is credible and academically trustworthy. Learning how to evaluate websites effectively is a skill you will use not only as a student but also in all the life decisions you will need to make!

Evaluating Sources for Credibility

Students often receive research assignments requiring the use of credible sources. But what does it mean for a source to be "credible"? Why is it important to use these sources? And how can you tell if a source is credible?

When we describe a source as "credible," we're basically saying that the information is high quality and trustworthy. Essentially, that we can believe what the source is telling us.

When you use high-quality sources to back up your points, you demonstrate your own credibility as a writer, thereby contributing to the overall effectiveness of your argument. The best quality research builds on other high quality research. This is true of both your own work and the work of professional researchers.

There are several factors that contribute to a source's credibility. Among them are the author's level of expertise, her point of view, and the source's publication date.

The author's level of expertise on the topic he or she is writing about could take the form of an advanced degree or other extensive experience in the field. A credible source often provides information about the author's credentials.

Sometimes, however, the author's credentials may not be listed, and the publication itself can be the marker of quality. This is often true for some non-scholarly publications like well-respected newspapers and magazines, where the article's content is critically examined as part of the publication process.

Another important component of a source's credibility is its point of view, in particular its potential bias. Bias is an inaccurate or unfair presentation of information. In some cases, bias is intentional. A group with its own agenda may sponsor research or information, and this sponsorship may influence the results. Bias can also be unintentional. A writer's perspective may prevent him or her from being able to see all sides of an issue.

Sometimes you need unbiased facts to support your point. But other times you might want people's opinions, and that's OK as long as you acknowledge the source's perspective in your work. While bias can be difficult to detect, be aware that it can exist in any kind of source, including things you find through the library.

In the academic publishing world, books and articles go through a rigorous editorial process in which an editor or group of scholars evaluate the work's quality. When it comes to journal articles, this process is called peer review. Peer-reviewed articles are considered high quality, because the review process helps to filter out sources that are written by unqualified or biased authors.

Finally, with any source, consider when it was published or last updated. Even something that was once high-quality can now be out-of-date and unsuitable for some purposes. If I needed current statistics on the average cost of college in the United States, a source published in the 1990s would be out of date. However, if I were looking at the the increase in college tuition over the last few decades, a source from the 1990s might fit my purposes.

Of course, not every credible source is appropriate for your research. Be sure to evaluate not only a source's trustworthiness, but also its appropriateness for your argument.

For help finding credible sources or determining whether a source you've found is credible, ask a librarian!


This video is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license. Courtesy of the North Carolina State University Libraries. Published in August 2013.

The ABC test to evaluate sources

When evaluating a website for reliability, think of the ABC way provided below!

  • Author: As noted in the video, does the author of the website have expertise and knowledge of the topic? If the author is unknown, what is the expertise of the online publication or the organization that created the website?
  • Bias: Does the website have a particular point of view on the topic? There are two very different types of bias: 1) bias that, intentionally or unintentionally distorts reality or facts; and 2) bias that takes a point of view within a given reality. The first can be dangerous to your research, but the second can be valuable as you can understand an issue from varying points of view. 
  • Currency: Is this information written recently? For example, an article about Jupiter written in the 1990s will state the planet has 16 moons. Then telescopes became powerful and NASA sent orbiters to Jupiter. As of June 2017, 69 moons have been found to orbit the gas giant. Currency matters for many topics! 

Here's a tip! Beyond web searching, using library resources is an easy way to ensure that you use appropriate sources. Library sources such as books and journals go through a review or editorial process. They are reviewed and evaluated for their accuracy and objectivity with consideration given to the expertise of the author and reputation of the source. So be sure to think about your school library or local library when requiring information to complete your assignments.

Just because a news story is repeated, you shouldn't assume it is Real!

How to Choose Your News

Sites to help you distinguish Fake News from Real News

Suggested Reading

Vocabulary

In addition to careful evaluation of websites when completing assignments, it is also important to evaluate information you get from news sources, both online, in print and through social media. Some news is intended to be misleading. Sometimes this type of news is called "Fake News".  There are other words that are used often to describe different types of Fake News. Expand your English vocabulary by learning these words:

  • Fake News - a type of  journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation 
  • ‚ÄčHoax - false information that is deliberately presented as truthful
  • Propaganda - information, especially biased or misleading, that is used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

  • Bias - a strong view or opinion in favor of or against an idea
  • Satire - wit, irony, or sarcasm used in a way to expose and discredit vice or folly.

And don't forget these words:

  • credible (adjective); credibility (noun)  - accurate, accuracy.
  • authority - academic knowledge or expertise on a topic (notice that the work 'author' is in this word!)
  • objectivity - without bias; without prejudice
  • evaluate - to think critically about information; to review the information