Anyone who has performed research on the web knows that there is an overwhelming amount of information available to us. When searching online, just because a particular source is at the top of the search results does not necessarily mean that it is the most appropriate source to apply to your research. What information is needed to answer your research problem? What data is most relevant to your research goal? Be very selectful when choosing your sources—they are definitely not all created equal!
With the popularity of the Internet, where anyone can post just about anything, it can be extremely challenging to determine the reliability of information. Even with books and articles, it is important to be able to distinguish relevant information from biased, inaccurate information. Remember, all reasoning is based on data, information, and evidence—so you want to make sure that you are properly evaluating your sources for relevancy and accuracy. Here are a few things to consider when critically evaluating information sources.
- Relevancy. Does the resource address your research question? What are the findings and conclusions of the information presented? Is data included to support the conclusion? Is the data verifiable? Is there enough information provided? Is there a bibliography or footnotes authenticating the information presented? Is the information clear, accurate and relevant to the claim you are making? Does the information fulfill the requirements of the assignment?
- Purpose. Is the source intended to inform, persuade, or educate? Is it designed to sell a service or product? When evaluating websites, it is important to pay attention to the domain name—profit (.com), nonprofit (.org), government (.gov), or educational site (.edu)—as this can be an indicator of purpose and possible bias. Advertising should be clearly labeled as such.
- Authority. Who is the author? Are the author's credentials listed? Is the information presented on a topic in the author's area of specialty? Is the author's association reputable or known for a particular bias? When evaluating websites, is there a way to contact the author? To find out more about a particular author, it may help to perform a general web search using the author's name and affiliation.If there is no author listed, is the site sponsored by a group or company? If so, check out the site's "About Us" page and mission statement.Does the group acknowledge a commitment to particular philosophies?
- Quality. Is the information presented in a logical, well-organized manner? Are the author’s main ideas clearly presented? Are there grammar, spelling, or typographical errors? Are images, tables, and charts appropriately described and labeled?
- Timeliness. When was the source published? Be sure that the dates of the sources you are using are suitable for the topic area. For example, topic areas in science, medicine, and current events require the most up-to-date resources.
- Point of view. Many people only seek out information which supports what they already believe to be true. When critically evaluating a source, it’s important to consider information from other points of view. What information has been left out that needs to be considered? When evaluating information that opposes your own viewpoint, strive to be fair-minded and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the source. Skilled reasoners consider all relevant information, not just that which supports their own point of view. Be sure to articulate the point of view from which you are approaching the issue, but also fairly present important aspects from opposing views.
- Appropriateness. Even if a source is reliable, it may not be appropriate for your research. Does it contain information that supports your argument? Who is the intended audience? Beware of inflammatory language, sarcasm, and extreme bias.
Take the time to critically evaluate your search results. If you discover gaps in your arguments and evidence, you will need to readjust your search strategy in order to locate sources that are more relevant to your research problem. With patience and persistence, you will find the most appropriate and reliable resources available. Critical evaluation of resources allows for a greater understanding of different perspectives, making you a fair-minded researcher and skilled reasoner.