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Evaluating Sources: Getting Started

Why Evaluate

Information should never be taken at face value. It requires critical thinking - breaking down information, problems or questions into component parts and determining their credibility.

CRAAP Test and More

Currency: The timeliness of the information

  • When was the information published or posted?
  • Has the information been revised or updated?
  • Is the information current or out-of date for your topic?
  • Are the links functional?

Example:

Below is a modified screen-capture of a HealthDirect Australia recommendation for avoiding the introduction of peanuts to infants under the age of six months. HeathDirect Australia is a government-funded organization.

 

 

In January 2017, new guidelines emerged suggesting that peanuts should be introduced to infants by six months of age, in order to avoid developing allergies. Below is a screen-capture of a report from The Globe and Mail on the study.

 

 

This article is based on a 2015 trial from Learning Early about Peanut Allergy (LEAP), where researchers found that the early introduction of peanuts reduced the development of severe allergies.

Whether or not to introduce peanuts early in infancy is a contentious issue, especially for high-risk families. The above screenshots show how the consensus among scientific community can change within a short period of time due to new research findings. Even websites belonging to credible organizations may not reflect the latest research, because more policy decisions may need to be made within those organizations before their official guidelines are prepared. Therefore, it is advisable to check multiple sources on the topic in question.

To make better-informed decisions as researchers, consumers and/or parents, track down and read the original study, Addendum guidelines for the prevention of peanut allergy in the United States: report of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-sponsored expert panel. Notice that Dr. Edmond Chan, who was quoted by The Globe and Mail in the above article, is also one of the researchers in the study.

Relevance: The importance of the information for your needs

  • Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
  • Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining this is one you will use?
  • Would you be comfortable using this source for a research paper?

Example:

If your research topic is concerned with global policies regarding the use of neonicotinoid insecticides and their impact on crop production and bee health, which of the two following information sources is more relevant to your research?

 

Or:

 

While the TED film discusses the mites that prey on baby bees, the video is not directly related to pesticide use. The European Union website, however, talks about the regulation of pesticides to ensure bee health. The EU website also features bee health-related articles, including a Study on honey bee colony mortality and other related research projects.

The library subscribes to scholarly journals that will help answer your questions. The article Neonicotinoid insecticides and their impacts on bees: A systematic review of research approaches and identification of knowledge gaps is an example.

 

 

Authority: The source of the information

  • Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
  • Are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations given?
  • What are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations given?
  • What are the author's qualifications to write on the topic?
  • Is there contact information, such as a publisher or e-mail address?
  • Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source? examples: .com .edu .org .net .ca .gc.ca .gov.bc.ca

Example:

Let’s say you want to know more about the link between Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) and breast cancer. Compared to the authoritative content found in the library’s online reference collection, would you consider the following Elyn Jacobs article, discovered via internet search, to be a credible source of information (modified screen-capture below)?

Aside from being a cancer survivor and a practitioner of alternative medicine, Jacobs does not appear to have any medical credentials, nor any professional affiliation with credible institutions. An internet search quickly reveals that Jacobs owns an alternative medicine consulting company in New York. She also promotes certain naturopathic products. The content of her article should be considered commercial in nature, and not academic.

Below is a screen-capture of a blog post entry by Dr. Emma Smith, found on the Cancer Research UK website.

You’ll notice that the writer’s name is hypertext-linked, taking readers to the page that details the author’s credentials and her other articles/blog posts. Emma Smith has her PhD in immunology and studied white blood cell cancer at The Institute of Cancer Research. She is now a science communications manager at Cancer Research UK.

Although the blog post is written in layman’s terms, and does not have an extensive bibliography as most scholarly journal articles have, you’ll notice that many of the terms in the post are hypertext-linked, taking readers to reference articles published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the informational content

  • Where does the information come from?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been peer-reviewed or refereed?
  • Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
  • Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion?
  • Are there spelling, grammar, or other typographical errors?

Example:

 

     

 

 

The top left screen-capture was from a post that circulated in chain emails, and was also published on a personal blog site. The top right screen-capture is the Canadian Council of Refugees' response. The post on the left has also been refuted by Immigration and Citizenship.

The problem started with a reader’s response to a Toronto Star article from 2004, New Refugee Plan Eyes Small Cities. The reader misinterpreted the data and said in an email to the editor that refugees to Canada were receiving more assistance than Canadian pensioners. That email led to another response, suggesting that pensioners should apply as refugees to receive more funding.

According to the the Toronto Star ombudsperson, newspapers have limited resources when it comes to fact-checking letters to the editors. As a result, the above misinformation spread and created the myth that refugees receive more assistance than pensioners. The ombudsperson’s explanation has been posted on the Canadian Council for Refugees’ website

Fact-checking for accuracy is increasingly important in a digital age where misinformation can quickly go viral. The sharing of news stories and other information is highly encouraged by social media platforms; evaluating the quality and accuracy of said information should also be encouraged.

Purpose: The reason the information exists

  • What is the purpose of the information? to inform? teach? sell? entertain? persuade?
  • Do the authors/sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear?
  • Is the information fact? opinion? propaganda?
  • Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
  • Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases?

Example:

        

The labelling of genetically-modified products is a contentious issue, and the purpose of any information given on this topic should be clearly addressed, regardless of position or bias. Looking at the above two screen-captures, Rodale Institute is very clear on its position, while the article on the right, from Genetic Literacy Project, is more ambiguous - especially when it comes to the project’s ties with Monsanto Co.

On the Genetic Literacy Project’s website, you’ll find many articles defending the use of biotechnology, some of them written by prominent scholars who support genetic engineering. As well, there are articles that justify the right for biotechnology companies such as Monsanto to patent their seeds. One should be wary of websites with poor transparency; they may be intentionally disguising their purpose in promoting an idea or agenda.

While it can be difficult to find objective sources of information that highlight multiple points of view on a single issue, you can strive for objectivity by researching and presenting the different sides of the topic in question.

  Print Sources (books and periodicals) Websites
Currency
  • Look for publication or copyright date.
  • Be aware of the version/edition of the information you are consulting.
  • Search for critiques on the information/research in question.
  • Publication dates for privately-maintained online content may vary in meaning. If you can, confirm whether the date refers to:
  • When the page was first created
    • When the page was published on the web
    • When the page was last revised
  • Scan through the information and see if the website relies on data published during a certain time period, or cites the most recent findings.
  • Identify whether the information has been revised or updated, and if so, when.
  • Find any dead links on the page. Dead links usually indicate the page is not up to date or otherwise well-maintained.

 

Relevance
  • See if the work addresses your research question and meets the requirements of your assignment.
  • Check if it is content-appropriate for your research topic or assignment. Look for:
    • Scholarly vs. popular writing
    • Facts vs. opinions
    • Publication format: newspaper, magazine, academic journal, government report, etc.
    • Subject coverage
    • Language
    • Time period
    • Geographical area
  • Read the table of contents and scan the headings.
  • Skim the preface, abstract, introduction, and/or conclusion.
  • Look for footnotes or endnotes, and/or a bibliography.
  • Search for reviews:
  • Evaluate using the same steps as print sources.
Authority
  • Identify and examine the author's credentials and affiliations.
    • What is the author's professional background? Is the author recognized and well-respected in his/her field?
    • Does the author represent any special interest groups? Are they known to advocate for any causes, especially those involving gender, religion, race and/or culture?
    • Is the author's body of work (including online content) recommended by any other respected and credible sources?
  • Identify the author of the website. It could be:
    • An individual
    • An educational institution (.edu extension for American schools)
    • A governmental agency (.gc.ca, gov.bc.ca)
    • A non-profit organization (.org)
  • Look for the “About Us” page and check if the author’s credentials are stated.
  • Determine if the website has been recommended by reputable sources, e.g., your professor or other experts.
Accuracy
  • Locate the source of the information.
  • Determine whether the information is supported by evidence.
  • Verify if any of the information comes from another source, or from personal knowledge.
  • Check the language and tone for biased and/or emotion.
  • Watch for poor spelling, grammar, or other typographical errors.
  • Look for any citations.
  • Compare information found on the website to print sources in terms of accuracy.
  • Make sure links are active.
  • Follow same steps as print sources re: language/tone and spelling/grammar.
Purpose
  • Determine the purpose of the information (inform/teach/sell/entertain/persuade).
  • Assess whether the authors make their intentions clear.
  • Look for political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional and/or personal biases.
  • Follow same steps as print sources.
  • Identify the website as opinion-based or fact-based.
    • Determine if the website is affiliated with an organization that carries a particular institutional bias.
Point of View (Bias)
  • Identify the source’s bias
  • Specify if the ideas being promoted are political, religious, cultural or gender-based in nature
  • Determine if opinions are being presented as facts
  • Identify the website’s bias
  • Determine if the website is affiliated with organizations that may be pushing an agenda
  • Assess whether different points of view are presented
  • Look for advertising aimed at promoting products or ideas

Adapted from: Evaluating Information Rubric, Penn State University Libraries

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