Evaluating Information Sources

Why Evaluate your Sources?

To produce strong research, you must carefully evaluate each resource you find and use for your research project. Whether the source is an online or print journal article, a website, a book, a newspaper article, a conference proceeding, or even a Tweet, you must always assess the source to determine its currency, relevance, accuracy, authority, and purpose (also known as the C.R.A.A.P. test). Use the questions in this guide to help guide you through your assessment of your research materials. Remember that most publications have a particular bias, which might not be noticeable at first glance; however, you can often find information about the publisher’s biases by looking up the publication’s mandate on its website.

Do not worry if you cannot answer each question found in this guide every time, but instead use them as helpful guides as you critically assess each source.

Evaluate Your Source’s… Currency

You should verify the timeliness of the source to ensure that the time the source was published helps support your research. To determine the source’s currency, here are a few useful guiding questions:

  • Is there a date stating when the document was originally created?
  • Is it clear when the source was last updated, revised or edited?
  • Are there any indications that the material is updated frequently or consistently to ensure the content’s currency?
  • If the source is online, are the website links current?
  • For your research, do you require an older source or a newer source?
  • Although the publication is older, is it still important to read for your research, or are its ideas no longer relevant?

The Importance of Questioning a Source’s Currency

On the one hand, the currency of information is particularly important in the sciences because findings can drastically change in short periods of time. For this reason, you must ask yourself: how current is the research you have found, and has it been revised since the source’s original publication? On the other hand, some sources remain authoritative regardless of them being published less recently. For instance, some sources might be considered “seminal works,” which represent a starting point for a new way of examining a discipline, and for this reason remains relevant today because it helps situate discipline’s history.

Evaluate Your Source’s… Relevance

It is important that you determine the source’s relevance to your research project. To assess the source’s relevance, you may ask yourself:

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Does the source update other works, support other works you have read, or add new information?
  • Does the source cover the topic comprehensively, or does it only cover one aspect of it? Ensure that you analyze a sufficient amount of resources to obtain a range of viewpoints on all facets of the topic.
    • For books, the table of contents and index will help you assess the source’s coverage.
  • For online sources, is the site complete or still under construction? Does the source seem stable, or is it likely to change much between when you read it and when your research is finished?

The Importance of Questioning a Source’s Relevance

Ensure that the source is relevant to your research, and that it helps you advance your argument. Does it support your research, challenge it, or offer new ideas? If so, the source will provide you the opportunity to advance your research and to effectively respond to other researchers.

Evaluate Your Source’s… Accuracy

You should critically assess the source’s accuracy to determine the content’s reliability, truthfulness, and correctness. To do so, you may want to ask:

  • Is the source part of an edited or peer-reviewed publication?
  • Can factual information be verified through references to other credible sources?
  • Based on what you already know about the subject, does this information seem credible?
  • Is it clear who is responsible for the source’s accuracy? For instance, is it on an open website such as Wikipedia, which can be edited by anyone?
  • If data is presented in graphs and charts, is the data’s source clearly defined?
  • Is the argument well supported by verifiable evidence?
  • Is the source peer-reviewed?
  • Are there grammatical, spelling or syntactical errors?

The Importance of Questioning a Source’s Accuracy

In the scholarly publication process, there are a number of steps journal articles go through called a peer-review. The article is reviewed by two, three or, sometimes, four independent field experts to asses the article, and to write reports that either recommend it for acceptance, recommend it for acceptance with minor changes, acceptance with major changes, or rejection. Acceptance rates vary depending on the journal’s prestige, and the entire process can take up to a year. Although this example demonstrates the process of evaluating journal articles, other publications undergo other types of review to ensure that the source provides the most accurate information. However, sometimes the reviewers will miss information, and it is your responsibility to verify the sources for your research project.

You can use many of the Library’s databases to find peer-review journals. You can limit your search by selecting “Scholarly & Peer-Review” in Summon as well as many subject-specific databases. One tool you can use to determine whether a journal article is peer-reviewed is Ulrichsweb. Ulrichsweb, formerly called Ulrich’s Periodical Directory, is a database containing detailed, comprehensive, and authoritative information on more than 300,000 periodicals. You should also check the journal’s website. Does it say its articles are peer-reviewed? Does it describe the journal’s peer-review process? Who are its editors? What are their credentials? These are all important questions to ask when deciding on the accuracy of a publication.

When you search the web, you will usually find a combination of online scholarly journal articles (many provided to you by UBC Library) and other websites. While individual websites may be written by experts, and have some sort of editing process in place, there is no overall system for vetting the web. This lack of review and revision process means that not all Web pages are reliable or valuable. Documents can easily be copied and falsified, or copied with omissions and errors – intentional or accidental.

Evaluate Your Source’s… Authority

You should critically assess the source’s author to determine who produced it, what biases are being presented, and why was it produced. Although it might appear obvious to question an author’s expertise, it is easy to overlook an author’s credentials, especially when evaluating an online source. Authors might produce for the following reasons:

  • Some authors write to share their research’s results with other scholars.
  • Some authors are hired to produce articles for the general public.
  • Some authors are passionate amateurs.
  • Some authors publish fabricated or unproven research for a variety of reasons.

Nowadays, anyone with an Internet connection has the potential to publish and distribute information. For this reason, you are responsible for assessing whether or not the source is written by an expert, and for what purpose. To critically assess a source’s authority, try asking:

  • Does the work have a specific author? If so, is the author clearly identified?
  • Are the author’s credentials for writing on this topic included? Journal articles often list the author(s)’s university or organizational affiliation.
  • If the author is affiliated to an organization, could this organization have a bias?
  • Have you seen the author’s name cited in other sources or bibliographies? Try using Google Scholar (http://resources.library.ubc.ca/page.php?details=google-scholar&id=524) to determine how often the source, and its author(s) have been cited.
    • Repeated citations by others and a substantial body of work by an author are usually strong indicators of their expertise.
  • Does the source represent a group, organization, institution, corporation or government body?
  • Can you contact the publisher? Contact information can be especially useful for online sources.

The Importance of Questioning a Source’s Author

Usually a source’s author, and publisher should have credentials that can easily be found online. If you cannot find this information, you should be very suspicious. If the work is not well supported, why should you trust and support the source? Even if you can identify the source’s author and publisher, you should still verify that the source is indeed what it claims to be. Verifying this information will require some of your time; however, it is a useful process during your research rather than later on. You should also remember that although an author might be an expert in one field, s/he might not be an expert in another. As a whole, always be wary of a source’s author.

Evaluate Your Source’s… Purpose

A source is almost always published with a clear purpose. Identifying the source’s purpose will help reveal why it exists. It may be useful to ask:

  • Why was the source created? Was it to educate, sell a product, advocate a viewpoint or to promote new ideas?
  • Who is the targeted audience? Is it a general of specialized audience?
  • Is the source too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or does it effectively address your research needs?
  • Which parts of the presented information are fact, and which parts are subjective?

The Importance of Questioning a Source’s Purpose

For your research purposes, you want to ensure that the source’s target audience is indeed at an appropriate level of comprehension. You should also ensure that you distinguish between facts and interpretative ideas to effectively respond to the source.

Facts are usually verifiable, and are traditionally found in primary sources. In contrast, interpretative ideas are general founded upon facts; however, they evolve from the interpretation of facts. In most scholarly work, you will find a balance of the two, which provides not only factual information, but also critical interpretations of the data. Your research should respond to the interpretations of the data in order for you to develop your own new argument, which will be motivated by your own purpose.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are the direct evidence or first hand accounts of events without secondary analysis or interpretation. A primary source is a work written or created at a contemporaneous or nearly contemporaneous moment with the period or subject being studied.

For more information on primary sources, please visit UBC Library’s Primary Sources Guide.

Additional Resources

The above information was gathered and informed by: