You should always evaluate your sources for their credibility, truthfulness, and usefulness. Do this for print sources—like books—and online sources, like websites and apps.
First, let’s review some commonly accepted criteria for evaluating sources: accuracy, authority, bias, coverage, and currency. Each criterion is important.
Let’s briefly discuss each one and some questions you should answer about each source you use:
- Accuracy. Accuracy means the source is correct and presents factual information. Ask yourself: Does the website misstate or misrepresent facts? Does the source contain errors? Does the source state something you know is wrong or is not as certain as the source makes out? Is the website sloppy, disorganized, or of low quality? If the site were a restaurant, would you take your grandmother there? Sources that don't acknowledge and correct their mistakes undermine their own credibility.
- Authority. Authority refers to the source's creators’ credentials. Ask: Who created this information? What are their affiliations and professional accomplishments? Where do they work? Do they have advanced degrees listed, like Ph.D’s or other degrees? That’s usually a good thing. Is there evidence the authors know what they’re talking about?
- Bias. Bias means leaning toward a position or opinion. Ask: Does the source hide the fact they have a point of view or a goal? Are they open and up-front about their connections with political or social advocacy? How is the group or website funded? Sources that hide information undermine their own credibility. Don’t trust people who hide things or try to mislead you.
- Coverage. Coverage refers to the amount of information or content in a source. Ask: How much information is provided? Is there adequate supporting information for any claims they make? Is this just an opinion source representing what someone personally believes?
- Currency. Currency refers to how old the information is. Ask: When was the source last updated? How new is the information? How important is the date to the type of information or field? For example, if you’re researching a medical or legal topic you want the newest information.
Second, do not use sources that fail your evaluation: that is, they aren’t trustworthy or of good quality.
Use other, better sources instead, that is, sources that do pass your evaluation.
If you ever have questions about the value or integrity of a source, like a website, you can always ask your professor or a librarian what they know about it. We’re always happy to help!