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Evaluating Information Sources: Home

This guide provides guiding questions that can help you think through the critical evaluation of information sources.

Why Evaluate Sources?

While most of us realize that we can’t trust all the information we see or read, we don’t always spend a lot of time considering how we actually make decisions about what to trust. Whether we’re watching the news, reading a friend’s blog, researching a health condition, or using information in some other way, we generally draw on our own values and life experiences to make relatively quick judgments about the validity of the information we are exposed to or seek out. Sometimes we don’t even consider the fact that we made a judgment about what to trust in the first place. We’re simply on autopilot.

Although the amount of deep thinking we need to put into evaluating the validity of an information source can vary depending on the significance of the situation, we ultimately make better decisions and construct more convincing arguments when we have a strong understanding of the quality of the information we’re using (or not using). This is especially true in an academic context, where our ability to create knowledge and meaning depends on our ability to analyze and interpret information with precision.   

To evaluate information, then, is to analyze information from a critical perspective. The evaluative process requires us to step back and carefully consider the sources we use and how we use them, to not rush to judgment but to think through the content of the articles we’re reading or the online search results we’re browsing. We also need to consider the relationships among different sources and how they work together to form “conversations” around certain topics or issues. A “conversation” in this sense refers to the diverse perspectives and arguments surrounding a particular research question (or set of questions).

The questions in this guide can help you think through the evaluation of information sources. Keep in mind that evaluation is not simply about determining whether a source is “reliable” or “not reliable.” It’s rarely that easy or straightforward. Instead, it’s more useful to consider the degree to which a source is reliable for a given purpose. The primary goal of evaluation is to understand the significance and value of a source in relation to other sources and your own thinking on a topic.

Note that some evaluative questions will be more important than others depending on your needs as a researcher. Figuring out which questions are important to ask in a given situation is part of the research process. Also note that your evaluation of a source may evolve over time. For instance, a source that seems very useful early on may prove less useful as your project develops. Likewise, a source that seems insignificant at the beginning of a project may turn out to be your most significant source later in the research process.

Evaluating Sources: Critical Questions

Use the following questions to help you think through the significance and value of information sources in relation to a particular research project or other information need. Please note that the broad categories below overlap and are not intended to be analyzed in isolation from each other.

CONTEXT

  • What is the purpose of the source? Why was it written or created?
  • Who is the primary audience for the source? Experts in a particular subject or discipline? People working in a particular career? Some other specific group? The general public?
  • Who cares about the information or argument in this source? Why would someone be interested in it?
  • What are the key issues or topics being addressed? How does it relate to other sources on similar issues? What “conversation” does the source participate in?

CREDIBILITY

  • How authoritative is the author/creator? What knowledge, expertise, or skills does the author/creator have?
  • What kind of evidence or data is presented in the source? How can we evaluate the accuracy or quality of the evidence?
  • Is it possible to trace the sources of outside information used by the author/creator? Is there a bibliography or other means of tracing sources?
  • What type of review process did the source undergo? Has it been evaluated by scholars in a particular subject area (i.e. peer-reviewed)? Has it been evaluated by an editor or publisher?

POINT OF VIEW

  • What is the point of view of the author/creator? What are the potential biases of the source? Are multiple perspectives considered?
  • How is the author/creator approaching the topic? In what other ways might the author/creator have approached the topic?
  • How does my own point of view as a reader affect my evaluation or understanding of the source? What are my biases and assumptions?

DEPTH

  • How detailed is the argument or information presented in the source? How general or specific is it? How does it compare to the depth of other related sources?
  • How long is the source? A few pages? A longer article? A book-length work?
  • Is the depth appropriate for my purposes as a researcher?

RELEVANCE

  • How does the source speak to my research question or topic? How does it speak to issues raised by other sources? How does it relate to the larger “conversation” on the topic?
  • Have I considered a variety of ways the source might be relevant? Am I being too quick to judge the source as relevant or irrelevant?
  • Does the content of the source still matter at this point in time? Are there more recent perspectives that also need to be taken into account?
  • Is the content of the source appropriate for my goals or needs as a researcher?

IMPACT

  • Who is affected by the argument or information presented in the source?
  • How significant is the argument or information? What is the value of the source?
  • What are the implications of the argument or information for my own research?
  • What are the implications of the argument or information for the larger “conversation” on the topic? What does the source add to the “conversation?”

Some questions have been adapted from Linda Elder and Richard Paul’s The Aspiring Thinker’s Guide to Critical Thinking (Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009) and Colleen Bell and Paul Frantz’s Critical Evaluation of Information Sources (University of Oregon Libraries, 2012).

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