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REA 011/017 - Pro and Con - Evaluating Sources

Academically Reliable and Appropriate Sources

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

When writing a paper, or speaking to an audience, you want to support your points by using information that is academically reliable. This means that it is objective, credible, and backed up factually. Information from sources written by authors with expertise and knowledge to support your points strengthens your work, because it is academically reliable. While the academic reliability of a source is important, an additional consideration is how appropriate and useful the source is for your purpose. Think about what points you are trying to make or argue about your topic and how effectively the source supports your points. 

The CQ Researcher database is an example of an academically reliable database of reports on current issues. Each report is written by a reporter who thoroughly researches an issue and provides footnotes to authoritative sources throughout the report. Your assignment asks you to look at the Pro Con page of a CQ Researcher report. This is the only page in the report, however, that is not written by the reporter. The reporter asks two experts to answer a probing question about the issue. The two columns, Pro and Con are written by the experts in answering the reporter's question. In order for you to take the side of one of the experts, you would need to check the arguments made by each expert to ensure that they are based on facts and not just on personal bias or opinions. In future classes, you will be asked to take this extra step when choosing one side on an issue. 

Information freely available via websites requires especially careful evaluation and review to ensure that the information is credible and academically reliable. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of misinformation (false information) and disinformation (false information that is deliberately shared), especially when it comes to current issues in the news. Learning how to think critically to effectively evaluate information found every day on websites, and linked on social media, is a skill you will use not only as a student but, also, on the job and 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.

How to evaluate web sources

Look for previous fact-checking work conducted by others: Search online to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.

"Go upstream to the source": Search online to find the original source of the claim to determine the trustworthiness of the information. 

Read laterally: Once you identify the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.).

"Circle back": If you get lost, or hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over. SInce you know more at this point than when you first started,, you’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and strategies.

Adapted from: Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers by Michael A. Caulfield which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

(Here's a tip! Web searching is just one way to find information. As a student you have access to library resources which help to ensure the use of appropriate sources. Library sources, such as books and journals, go through a review or editorial process in which they are reviewed and evaluated for their accuracy and objectivity. Consideration is 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 gathering information to complete your assignments. See the section titled "Starting Your Research".)