Evaluating information: Home
Evaluating a source
There is no shortage of information available, but information is produced for lots of different purposes and intended for different audiences. In most cases in Universities we use resources intended for academic audiences, these would include peer reviewed journals, specialist books, and data sources. However there will be times when you need to look at a variety of different types of resources beyond books and journals. Whatever sources of information you use, you should take some time to evaluate your sources. Whatever sources you use try to get into the habit of asking these questions.
What is the information about?
- It is relevant?
- Does it provide information which answers the specific questions you have?
- Does it agree or disagree with the consensus on a subject, what evidence is given to back up any disagreements with the consensus?
It's great to broaden your knowledge on a subject, but keeping your specific question in mind will help ensure you don't waste time on sources which aren't useful for the question you need to answer. If you're reading something which doesn't answer your question but is interesting to you, take a note to read it later, and move on.
Journal articles often have abstracts, these are summaries of the main points of an article, reading the abstract will allow you to determine whether the journal article will be useful to you, or not. Introductions and conclusion in books and book chapters can also be useful for this purpose.
Headlines of newspapers are often misleading, so you shouldn't use these as shortcuts to what the article is actually about.
Who is the author/editor?
- An individual
- A group of authors / editors
- An organisation
You should be able to easily identify who has produced the information you are using.
Do they have expertise in the subject?
Before you trust the information you have found, it's worth asking whether those producing the information have expertise in the subject. This can be easy with journal articles, often you'll see what University or organisation an author is affiliated to, and books often have a section giving information about authors. With other sources it can be more difficult to determine whether someone is an expert, this is especially the case with newspapers, blogs and social media, so you may need to exercise caution in using some of these sources.
Why has the information been provided
What is the motivation for the production of the information?
- To share new knowlegde
- To discuss an idea / provoke debate / explore a subject from a different perspective
- To convince or persuade
- To sell something
There are a wide range of purposes for information, asking why information has been produced is a key questions when critically evaluating information. Always consider bias. Ask if conclusions are soundly based on all the evidence given, or if evidence has been used selectively.
When was the information produced?
- You should be able to determine a date of 'publication'. If you can't find a date that something was published or updated you should exercise caution in using it.
- Is the information still correct, has it been updated or superceeded by new information?
- Is it a classic work or a milestone publication?
Knowing when something was produced can help you determine whether it's still relevant or not. Just because something is old doesn't mean it shouldn't be used, but check for anything which updates it.
- Where did you find the information?
- Where was the information published?
You always want to ensure that the information you are using comes from reputable sources. You will mostly want to use peer-reviewed journals, and books published by academic publishers. For other sources, such as websites the domain name can give you an idea on authority, e.g. .org, .ac, .gov or place e.g. .uk the Countries of the World website provides a fairly extensive list of geographic domain names. Consider which search engines you use, remember that search engines use algorithms to deliver results which can be biased to your searching history.
Academic databases (e.g. Web of Science) allow you to determine how results are sorted and filtered, so can be a better place to search. Check your subject guide for databases recommended in your subject, you'll also find the contact details for the Librarian for your subject who can advise on which databases are best for your subject and can show you how to use them.
How is the information presented?
- How has the research been conducted - method and sample size?
- Is evidence provided to back up any assertions?
- Is the argument clearly structured?
- Are there errors in spelling or grammar?
How can you use the information to answer your question?