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.
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.
POINT OF VIEW
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).