When conducting research, one of the most difficult things to do is to determine the quality of the sources you use for the information in your paper. Many times professors or teachers will prohibit you from using particular types of sources. For example, Wikipedia is often prohibited as a source, not because the information contained on Wikipedia is necessarily erroneous, but because the way that Wikipedia articles are created means that they are professionally assessed for quality. However, there are many other potential problems in sources that you should consider when assessing the quality of that source. Is the source biased? Is the information contained in the source verifiable? Is the author an authority? Is the information recent? Is the information relevant?
1. Is the Source Biased?
One of the most important things to consider when looking at sources is whether the source is biased. The short answer is that almost all sources exhibit some sort of bias. Bias does not disqualify a source as valid. However, it is important for you to recognize whether a source is bias and what that bias means for you as a person evaluating the information contained in the source. In order to examine bias, you should consider whether the author of the source appears to have that agenda. If so, does the information contained in the source only support that agenda or does it contain different points of view? Does the source contain words that indicate bias or prejudice, such as racial slurs, religious bias, or misogynistic language? Finally, what is your goal in using the source? For example, while you would not want to use a website for a hate group for objective information about the target of their hatred, that same source could be a valid source of information about the type of prejudice attitudes exhibited by hate groups.
2. Is the Information Contained in the Source Verifiable?
Determining whether you can verify the information depends on the type of information presented. If the sources for the information are anonymous, it can be difficult to determine whether or not they can be verified. Anonymity does not mean that a source is bogus, but it can serve as a red flag. Think of tabloid magazines, which site family friends that do not want to be named, making it impossible to identify the source of information. If the source contains scientific information, does it include the research methods and how they were assessed, so that you can determine whether the conclusions reached in the source are supported by the evidence? If the source highlights facts from other sources, does it cite those sources or provide links to that information? Are any facts or figures properly cited and verified?
If you are not certain whether the information is verifiable, there are several good websites that exist solely for the purposes of fact-checking. One of those websites is Snopes.com. Politifact.com and Punditfact.com are both well-respected for verifying the information shared by politicians and pundits.
3. Is the Author an Authority?
The internet has made it possible for all sorts of people to give opinions and has also made it easy for people to disseminate false information, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The first thing to do is determine whether an author is listed. If so, who is the author and what are the author’s qualifications? Sometimes a source may not contain an individual author, but may be a corporate author. This does not mean that the source is not credible. For example, some major reputable organizations, like the American Cancer Society, produce information without naming individual authors. Therefore, if there is no individual author, you need to consider who the corporate or governmental author is and whether they are qualified to provide information on the topic in question. Furthermore, if the author is an authority, what is the source of that authority? Are any relevant degrees from reputable institutions? Has scientific information passed the peer review process? In general, .gov websites or official government publications will be considered authoritative. Likewise, websites or publications managed by major organizations may be considered authoritative, but it is important to consider their potential for bias, as well.
4. Is the Information Recent?
Sometimes, the date of available information is critical and sometimes it is not. Many times people want to use sources that are within the last five years. If you are writing about the situation in the Middle East or the success of the Affordable Care Act, then recent information is critical. However, if your research topic is about the oedipal overtones in the relationship between Gertrude in Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play, then the date of the source is not necessarily indicative of its value. The first thing you must ask yourself is whether the date of the source impacts its usefulness. Next, if date does matter, you need to determine the optimal date for your resources. Sometimes, a recent date makes your source more valuable, but other times older dates indicate primary sources and would be more valuable. For the purposes of scientific research or research into the social sciences, the date of the research can be of critical importance to your work.
5. Is the Information Relevant?
Finally, when assessing a source, it is important to determine whether the information is relevant. Oftentimes, broad-based searches can return a number of results that do not speak directly to your research question. No matter how interesting, authoritative, credible, verifiable, or reliable the source, if it does not speak directly to your topic, it is probably not the best source of information for your paper.