Introduction to Selecting Sources
When researching a topic for a class assignment or paper, one of the more difficult tasks is selecting sources. There is an abundance of analog and digital resources available to students in the library, but it is the over-abundance of seemingly credible online sources that presents the greatest challenge to students searching for topic information. Online journal databases, digital libraries and websites often complicate the selection process.
Fortunately, there are some simple evaluation techniques to help you select the best sources. The guidelines below are based on criteria used by leading universities. They will help you learn to weed out the misinformation, biases, inaccuracies, and other signs that point to a less than reliable source. Practicing these skills will increase your ability to apply critical thinking to source selection. It will also prepare you to defend your decision to include a particular source when dealing with a controversial topic. An added bonus to using these techniques is that you will become much more vigilant in spotting false or misleading information you encounter online.
In order to prepare your paper, you need to ensure that the information sources you are using have authority and credibility, objectivity, relevance and currency in relation to your chosen topic. You must also understand and adjust for any sources which are not reasonably objective and show an inherent bias. Below you will find the basic criteria and questions to ask when evaluating a source. (More extensive coverage and explanation can be found in the resources section).
Authority and Credibility
· Who is the author?
· What credentials do they have, or what makes them qualified to cover the topic?
· Are they considered an expert on the topic?
· Have they published on the topic?
· Who is the site owner, publisher, and/or funding agency?
· Is this information readily available or hidden?
· What is the mission or purpose of the site?
· Is the mission clearly defined and easily located?
· Are citations included to backup claims, and are these from reliable sources?
· Is this article/journal peer-reviewed, edited, or curated?
· Is the site professional looking?
· Are there typos or spelling errors?
· Does the site carry lots of distracting ads?
Type of website and its domain
To assess an online source’s objectivity, it is useful to start by identifying the type of website and its domain. Certain types of sites are inherently more reliable than others, but understanding their differences will help focus your analysis to the areas where objectivity might be compromised.
Originally most were .net, but they are frequently .com due to self-publishing sites such as WordPress and GoogleSites. The intent of these sites is as varied as those responsible for the content.
- Who is the author and what makes him a reliable source of information on this topic?
- What is the point of the site (inform, entertain, persuade)?
(Unrelated to objectivity, but important: will the site and/or content you are using as a source be available for verification at a later date by yourself or your instructor?)
.org represents an organization, usually non-profit. The sites generally are informational, but many do carry a particular point of view as well. Libraries, museums, religious organizations, associations and non-profits fall into this category, along with Wikipedia.
- What is the purpose of the site: to raise awareness, inform, to raise donations?
- Is the information opinions or facts? Are citations included to backup claims?
- Are authors listed, and are they reliable experts on the topic?
- Who funds the site?
Universities and their libraries typically use .edu to denote educational institutions. Keep in mind that students enrolled in the school may also use .edu addresses while enrolled to publish material that may not reflect the standards of the school.
Most corporate entities use .com. Originally intended for commercial sites that were selling their products or services, .com is used by sites of all sorts.
In the United States, government agencies usually end .gov – These sites provide a access to, and distributing of, official information and documents released by the various departments and agencies of the government.
These are usually .com sites and need to be evaluated closely for reliability, accuracy, authority, and any particular political leanings or known bias.
- How well esteemed is the news published on the site by its peers?
- Who owns or funds the site?
- Can facts and information be verified elsewhere?
- Does your teacher allow use of these types of resources as a source?
- Using the primary sources cited on a community-edited page is a better option. For example, most Wikipedia pages conclude with References or a bibliographic list of relevant books and articles that were used to create the page.
· Does the author, publisher, funding agency or site sponsor have any obvious bias?
Purpose or Mission
· What is the site trying to accomplish?
· Is the site informational, educational, or public service
· Is the site promoting (selling) something:
- An item or method (ex. pushing a specific drug for smoking cessation)
- An ideology or political position (ex. trying to persuade, or increase donations)
· Does the site present facts or unsupported opinions?
· Can facts be verified elsewhere?
· Are citations included to back up claims, and are these from reliable sources?
Fact: Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States.
Opinion: Calvin Coolidge was the best President.
Fact: President Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.
Opinion: President Coolidge did not do enough to help American Indians.
· Does the site specifically address your topic, or is it only slightly mentioned?
· How important is the site compared to other sites in the topic area?
· Do many other sites link to the site?
· When was the information created, or last revised?
· Is the information current, and/or timely to your particular topic?
· How long has the site been around, and how often is it updated?
Additional Resources on Evaluating Sources:
“Evaluating Web Sites: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask” (UC Berkeley)—part of “Finding Information on the Internet: A Tutorial,” includes detailed guidance on evaluating web sources.
“Critical Evaluation of Resources” (University of Louisville)—detailed list of questions to ask when evaluating sources and where to find answers.
“Evaluating Sources” (University of Nevada)—video series illustrating the evaluation criteria
“Evaluating Information Tutorial” (University of North Carolina)—great place to visit for a quick refresher. Covers evaluation criteria for books, articles and websites.
“Evaluating internet information” (Virginia Tech)—single page summary
“Evaluating Web Sites: Criteria and Tools” (Cornell University Library)—directory of resources
Anyone can publish anything on the internet. When reviewing sources remember this and be mindful of the ways information can be misrepresented, intentionally or accidentally. They are impossible to avoid. Applying the evaluation criteria listed above will eliminate many sources that rely on these methods to twist information to suit their needs. However even reliable sources may fall victim, so it’s best to be aware of their existence. When vetting sources, try to focus on verifiable facts, eliminating opinions, emotional pleas, generalizations and obvious exaggerations. Listed below are some of the more common you will encounter in your research.
Prevalent in political speeches and documents, propaganda attempts to persuade you to think a certain way, or accept a certain set of beliefs. This category includes name-calling, repetition, appeals to prejudice, emotion, and fear. Stick to verifiable facts and decide for yourself.
Deliberate use of false or inaccurate information. Watch out for this one. The source is intentionally presenting false or misleading information. The question you should ask is why.
Unintentional use of false or inaccurate information. This could be a simple typo in a report or poorly verified source material. It is impossible to prevent all errors, so verify your facts.
Errors of Omission
Statements taken out of context, or abridged to remove information which would clarify the author’s intention. It is common to hear politicians use a portion of an opponent’s statement which twists the original meaning of the speaker. In other cases, individual statistics are cited in support of an argument while the overall results of the study are omitted because they don’t align with the author’s stance. Fact checking and locating the original source where the information came from can help you sort out the true story.
Battle of the Experts
Everyone has an expert, you just need to determine which is the most credible source of information on the topic you are studying. Experts frequently dispute the findings of a study, so you will need to determine who is the most reliable by investigating their credentials and reputation in the field.
Additional Resources on Identifying Propaganda and Misinformation:
“Recognizing Propaganda Techniques and Errors of Faulty Logic” (Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo County Community College District)
“Distinguishing Propaganda and Misinformation” (Johns Hopkins University)
These sites will help sharpen your evaluation skills by offering examples to compare, sample sources to evaluate and the opportunity to practice on real websites.
“Evaluating Internet Sites 101!”—Tutorial (University at Albany)
Test your ability to correctly identify a good source from a bad one. Tutorial walks you through sample evaluations focusing on author, audience, scholarship, bias, currency, and links.
“Evaluating Obesity Web Resources”—Tutorial (Arizona University Libraries)
Practice authority, currency, credibility; questions direct your walkthrough of two sites.
“Evaluating Web Resources”—Tutorial (Arizona University Libraries)
Practice evaluation techniques using this interactive tutorial that tests your skills.
“InfoSkills: Evaluating Information” (University of Newcastle)
Test your ability to identify the most appropriate analog and digital sources..
In dealing with controversial topics, it is wise to begin by acknowledging that complete objectivity in sources is unlikely. Sources will express strong opinions from specific points of view. The best practice to deal with this eventuality is to use multiple sources that represent all sides of the argument. The cumulative effect of this approach will be a more balanced view of the topic.
Evaluate sources using the normal criteria, but consider objectivity of the source as a lesser concern. Each source will present a specific viewpoint, with its inherent bias. Your goal is to find a respected authority for each side of the argument with the understanding that the sources will have distinct points of view that will balance each other. The more important criteria to focus on is the source’s authority and credibility. Consider each source and evaluate its credibility as an authority in the topic area among its peers.
While researching, pay close attention to the organizations and people that are frequently mentioned, cited, linked or referenced in relation to all viewpoints on the topic. These are typically larger organizations and are more representative. Avoid sources that advocate the extreme views held by a tiny minority. Although it might be useful to gain an understanding of the range of views on the topic, ultimately you are looking for the primary viewpoints expressed by the largest majority. This commonly appears as “for” and “against” camps.
Tips on locating reliable authorities expressing multiple perspectives include:
- Is the organization frequently mentioned or cited often as a source of information, counter-point, or comment in articles and books discussing the topic?
- Does the “against” side refute the opinions of one particular proponent regularly? This might point to the significance of the organization if its comments are quickly challenged. Likewise, organizations that are largely ignored may not be primary participants in the topic discussion, or represent minority opinions.
- Does the source state its opinions openly in a clear and easily accessed mission statement or statement of purpose? Are its intentions clear? Sites that are ambiguous, or try to hide their bias should be avoided. (It is common to find objective-looking sites that are actually affiliated with organizations advocating very strong views on the issue.)
- Do they provide pertinent statistics or data about the topic that are widely used by other credible sources? Are proper citations included to access the primary data?
- Do other sources with the same viewpoint link to them often, or refer to them often? Are they referenced as an authority on the topic?
- What is the history of the organization? Most controversial issues have been debated for decades. Older, more established organizations will have had time to develop, gain supporters, credibility, and possibly more authority.
- If there is a breaking news story on a particular topic, who do the reporters go to for comment and analysis?
- Be careful of fringe groups who might attract a lot of publicity but are not representative of their side of the issue. Their voice can be included, but it should not be the only one. (For example, tasked with locating both conservative and liberal political sources, the Tea Party would not be a good choice for the conservative voice since it does not represent the majority of conservatives.)
- Even if you plan to focus on one of the minority viewpoints, it is important to select sources that represent the other sides accurately. Locate sources that represent the largest majority holding each viewpoint so that your analysis will be balanced.
Construct search to capture sources representing all sides of an argument
It will be difficult to locate credible sources representing all sides of an argument if you don’t include search terms that cover the other sides. For example, locating sources for a paper on gun control will require sources both for and against gun control in order for your paper to be fair and balanced. To do this, you’ll need to construct search queries to capture both sides. During preliminary research, keep track of the key people, organizations, legal rulings and concepts that are specific to your topic and cover all viewpoints. Using these in your search will help locate the specific material you need. If you aren’t sure where to start, reading through a Wikipedia page on the topic may introduce terms and organizations to locate the opposing sides of the argument.
Misinformation, disinformation, and other propaganda techniques should be expected when researching controversial topics. However those that are more credible will supply links or citations for primary material so that you can investigate. Sources that include large amounts of misinformation should be avoided, but it will be difficult to find sources that don’t include at least one of these techniques, intentionally or not. Use a critical eye, some healthy skepticism, and fact check anything that looks suspicious.
Additional Resources for Researching Controversial Topics:
Annenberg Learner: organized by topic, the site presents a range of sources associated with the issue along with brief summaries of their viewpoint, political leanings and history.
ProCon: provides pro-con lists for controversial topics; a great resource when beginning to research a topic; highlights the key issues and points of contention for major topics.
Multnomah County Library: web directory focusing on providing research resources for controversial social issues that present multiple perspectives.
Yahoo Directory: “Issues and Causes”: web directory; individual pages for the topics include subheadings noting the different sides of the argument and other resources
WhoIs: Verify ownership of a website by entering its URL
Internet Archive: Visit the Waybackmachine to view a website’s history
Alexa: The Web Information Company: web analytics for a website
Merriam-Webster: dictionaries and encyclopedias remain a good place to fact check
Snopes: myth busting urband legends since 1995; a good source for rumor research
FactCheck.org (A Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center): Handy fact checker.
PolitiFact (Tampa Bay Times): Handy political fact checker.
Although a quick search on Google, Bing or Yahoo may locate thousands of potential sources on your topic in a second or two, you must apply a sharp eye to evaluate the results. Some sites pay for better placement, others are optimized to turn up higher in the list. Many of the better sources are hidden behind paywalls, inside databases, or on websites that aren’t accessible to search crawlers. If you have access to a local school or public library, start with a visit to their building or website. Librarians are trained researched experts who can highlight local resources and offer assistance in evaluating sources. Most libraries can also provide access to paid databases and other online resources not available through the search engines. Ask a local librarian for help, or contact the Ask an ipl Librarian service.
Another option is to use sites that provide screening for you. Google Scholar was created to focus on scholarly literature, eliminating a large amount of less reputable sources that would be included in a regular Google search. Results also include how many times the articles were cited in other scholarly papers, usually a good indication that the information was deemed reliable and accurate. Curated web directories like ipl offer another option. The resources included on ipl have been selected for inclusion and must meet quality standards. Active curation weeds out poor resources and can narrow your list of potential sources. Each source still needs to be evaluated individually to ensure it meets your needs.
Scirus for scientific information only
Microsoft Academic Search
Created by Jill Wiercioch Spring 2013.