Writing: Evaluate Sources

Before you trust a source...

Currency

  • If timeliness is critical to the subject discipline, or to the question at issue, how current is the information? Your professor may provide specific criteria on this aspect of an assignment (e.g., use sources no more than 5 years old).

Relevance

  • Is the content important to the question you're considering?
  • Is it appropriate in terms of the audience you are addressing?
  • Is it suitable to the level or nature of the information need?
  • Does it provide new information or a needed perspective or analysis regarding the question at issue?

Authority

  • Are the author's credentials and/or expertise indicated? Could that information be verified if needed?
  • Is the publisher or sponsoring body reputable and a reasonable source for such content?
  • Could either have a point of view or bias that should make you question that authority?

Accuracy

  • Does the author's reasoning and presentation of evidence appear logical and complete?
  • Are facts correct? Should you consider checking another source for verification?
  • Was a peer-review or editorial review process used prior to publication?
  • Are suitable references or sources indicated?

Purpose

  • Is the main purpose of the information to educate, persuade, or sell?
  • Is the purpose transparent, or is it hidden? Does it influence the degree to which you should be skeptical of the content?
  • If an opinion is being promoted, is it supported by a balanced, logical presentation of facts?

Based in part on the CRAAP Test by Meriam Library, California State Univ., Chico.

Bias is a "prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair" or "a predisposition either for or against something" (The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd ed., p. 159).

In addition to looking for bias in an information source, consider your own predisposition for a particular point of view.

Bias can be reflected through:

Word Choice - Subtle differences in expressions, syntax and diction can signal bias. Look for differences when comparing two articles [or documents] on the same subject.

Omitted Information - Stories, facts and details need to be complete and verified to offer the most objective and informed picture. Omissions -- intentional and unintentional -- create slanted and/or incomplete pictures. Watch for differing information and the use of anonymous information for clues.

Framing - Framing is about context and how information is presented. Facts may be presented, but they may be put into a context/situation/pattern that emphasizes or de-emphasizes certain elements. Framing can be committed by manipulating the ideas or the actual physical location of an article.

Sources - Where is the article [or document] getting its information? Fair reporting will offer information that comes from a multitude of sources (most of them identifiable) and a variety of constituencies. Relying on just one source or unnamed sources can compromise reliability. Using sources with a vested interest in the topic or omitting source affiliations can slant.

Spin - Offering details or perspectives favorable to one side without adequate time/space/debate for alternate views.

(From Detecting Bias, Miller Library, Keystone College; used with permission)

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But how can I know...?

Question markWhen we lack the expertise or experience to judge accuracy and completeness, we look to indicators of quality and reliability, such as the authority of the author or the currency of the information.

Such indicators can't guarantee reliability, but they're key factors to look for as your own knowledge and critical thinking abilities grow.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking offers templates for thinking through the logic of an article, essay, or chapter of a textbook and for evaluating an author's reasoning.

If needed, you also may be able to verify basic facts and find background information about a subject by checking recognized reference works and encyclopedias.

Definition of "Scholarly"

College-level assignments usually require the use of scholarly rather than popular information sources. The New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd ed.) defines scholarly as "involving or relating to serious academic study" and "having or showing knowledge, learning, or devotion to academic pursuits" (p. 1516).

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