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Basic Research Help: Evaluate Sources

How to Evaluate Sources

As a college student you know that your job is to evaluate the sources you use for your papers, presentations and research. But how do you do it? These points are most appropriate for sources available from the library, but they can be tweaked for web and news sources.

Expertise

What does the author know about the subject?

Objectivity

What is the purpose of the source?

Documentation

Where did the author get their information?

Timeliness

When was the material created?

Fact Checking

Was the material reviewed for publication?

 

Other Evaluation Methods

Expertise

What does the author know about the subject?

Is the author an expert in this field of research? Does the author have direct personal experience with the subject matter? The answers to these questions can help you determine the author's expertise in the area they are writing about.

Where to find

Articles may or may not provide author credentials. Popular articles may include them near the author's name, usually at the beginning or end of the article. You can Google an author to learn more about their expertise on a topic. Scholarly articles are more likely to list information about the author's institutional affiliation, often on the first page of the article:

Arrow pointing to author credentials at the end and beginning of two articles.

 

Books usually contain information about the author on the jacket, the back of the book, or within the first few pages:

Back of a book jacket with an arrow pointing to the author's credentials

 

Websites, like articles, may or may not provide credentials. If they are included, they can commonly be found at the top or bottom of a page, or sometimes the author's name is a link leading to their credentials.

Arrow pointing to an author's name, linking to their credentials.

Objectivity

What is the purpose of the source?

The author's impartiality in their presentation of information may help determine the usefulness of the source. Does the source represent multiple points of view, or only one? You may not be able to fully evaluate the objectivity of any single resource until you have looked at other sources on the same topic. Even a source that has apparent bias can be useful if you acknowledge the bias when evaluating and citing the source.

Where to find

Books and articles may include information about the author's background and credentials, which may give you clues regarding any impartiality.

Websites with an author listed may also provide information about their expertise or affiliation. Also, look for an "about us" or "about this organization" page that tells you about the special interests of the website where the article is published, which can also help determine a source's objectivity:

Screen shot of the About page from the Pew Research Center

Documentation

Where did the author get the information?

Sources that include quotes, citations, data, links, or other documentation for the conclusions they present are more reliable than those that do not. Expect the amount and type of evidence to vary between sources, but any documentation provided can help you verify the facts presented or claims made and help you determine the value of the source.

Where to find

Articles and Books will often have a bibliography (Works Cited or References section), detailing the sources the author used in the work.

Arrow pointing to the References section of an article

 

Websites may include a footnote of the source they used, or include link to their source.  In some cases you may need to search for the original source yourself.

Arrow pointing to a link to a source in a website article.

Timeliness

When was the material created?

In some disciplines, such as new technologies, information can become outdated very quickly. In other fields, like literature or history, sources that are decades old may still be valid. Consider your area of study and consult related sources to determine the timeliness of a source and how that impacts it value to you.

Where to find

Most articles, whether popular or scholarly, and books will list the date of publication at the beginning of the source.

Websites may have this information, commonly found at the top or bottom of the page.

Examples of publishing dates from a journal, book, and website

Fact Checking

Was the material reviewed for publication?

Different types of sources have quite varied fact checking processes they go through before publication. Articles that are peer reviewed or edited before publication are closely scrutinized for accuracy, while a social media post may not examined at all once it has been written.

Where to find

Check the front of a book or periodical the publishes articles for information about the editing, review, and selection process for the source.  When searching in the library database, check for peer-reviewed sources on the search page, or check the journal's page in the database.

Search options with Peer Reviewed checked, journal info showing peer review status

In some cases, especially for websites and social media posts, you may need to do some fact checking of your own.  Try to verify the information you're unsure of by finding other articles.  Be careful!  Other articles or posts may all be using the exact same source as the basis for their article.

You could also try fact checking websites such as:

Page Credit

This page was adapted from 5 Steps to Evaluation, from the College of the Mainland Library, published under a creative commons license.