WR 122 - Easby: Evaluating Sources

SIFT

While there is no perfect formula you can use to that will let you figure out how credible an information source is, if you make a practice of using SIFT, it will help you select high quality sources for your academic work.  SIFT means:

SIFT: Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context

 

Mike Caulfield, the developer of the SIFT method for finding credible information, explains in depth on his site.

Stop

When you begin to read, STOP and ask yourself if you know from experience if this is a reliable source. Your goal is not to track down every claim, but to see if a website is reliable. If you know the site is reliable, go ahead.  If not, go through the next steps.  You may not need to do all the steps- go as far as you need to determine reliability.

Investigate the Source

Say you are looking for something on children and sexual identity.  There are two organizations that you might find the "American Academy of Pediatrics" and the "American College of Pediatricians." How did fact-checkers determine that one was reliable, and the other a hate site?

Look it up!

So, in short, put the name of the organization (or a news website) in your search box, and the word "Wikipedia" Read the Wikipedia page enough to determine if this is a source you want to use.  If there isn't a Wikipedia article, take out the word "Wikipedia" and repeat your search to see what others have to say about this source.

A related technique is to copy the URL up to the internet domain (.com, .org, .biz, etc.) and search for just that part of the URL on another browser tab.

Still not sure if your website is reliable?

Find Better/Trusted Coverage

If you're not sure if the source you're looking at is reliable, one thing you can do is just keep looking!  We live in an world of information abundance.  If the information being provided by a site is high quality, it is mostly likely going to be available elsewhere as well.

Trace Claims, Quotes and Media to the original context.

Most stuff you see on the web is not original reporting or research. Instead, it is often commentary on the re-reporting of re-reporting on some original story or piece of research. And that's often a problem- think of the old "Telephone" game. So what to do?

Get as close as you can to the original source of the information.  If a person, report, etc is quoted on a website or in an article, do a new search, can you locate the original?

 

Scholarly? Professional? Popular?

When you have a research assignment, be sure to figure out what types of article sources are required or allowed. Some professors require you to use only scholarly peer-reviewed journals while others might let you use a variety of journals.

Scholarly article: Also known as peer-reviewed, academic, or refereed, these articles are written for researchers and experts and usually share the results of a research study. Scholarly articles are written by experts in the field and are reviewed by expert peers. In many databases, you can limit your search to scholarly, peer-reviewed, or refereed journals to weed out any non-scholarly content. Scholarly article example

Professional/trade article: Written for people working in a specific field. Articles can be written by experts in the field or by staff writers. The articles are only reviewed by journal editors, so they go through a less rigorous review process. Trade article example

Popular journals: Written for a general audience rather than for professionals or scholars, and written by journalists. Examples include The New YorkerPeople, and Rolling Stone. Popular article example

What is Peer Review?

Infographic describing the peer-review process.

Evaluating Sources: Questions to Ask

Decorative image of question marksHow do you know if a source is right for your research? Below are some questions you can ask about your sources. There are no good or bad sources, but sources can be useful or not useful based on the evidence you're looking for.

  1. Who is the author? What do you know about the author’s background? (hint: Google the author). What makes the author an expert on this particular topic (remember that experience and research are markers of expertise as well as education)?
  2. What journal, magazine, organization, or website published this information? Look for an "about" page on the publisher's website (or explore their website) and also Google the name of the publication/organization/website (or look for a Wikipedia page about it) to learn more about the publisher of the information. What kind of reputation does it have? What is their purpose in sharing this information? Is it known for promoting specific points of view? 
  3. Can you tell where the information in the article came from? Do they share any information from other sources or does it seem like they’re sharing their opinion? If they used other sources, do those sources seem worth trusting?

  4. Based on your answers to these questions, would you trust this source? If not, could anything from this article still be useful? Often articles link to other useful resources or mention other authors and studies that could be helpful.

You may not get good answers from all of these questions, but still trust a source. For example, an opinion piece from a noted expert in a specific field could be a useful source, but chances are, they are not going to be citing sources. Information from the Centers for Disease Control website is trustworthy, but much of it doesn't have an author. You have to weigh each of these factors when making your decision.