Evaluating Sources: Evaluation Criteria for Seeking Relevant, Useful and Accurate Information
As you conduct research, preferably structured research, evaluate every single source. Your first run through of evaluation criteria takes place as you are selecting which sources to use. When you have additional time, re-evaluate the source a second time. Do not make the mistake of assuming that because a source is found in the library that it is a quality source for an academic research paper.
Ultimately evaluating sources based on the information you need for a specific assignment is the best approach. Use the following eight evaluation criteria to evaluate sources.
Evaluation criteria #1: Authority
Evaluate sources on the authority of the author and the publisher by asking the following questions:
- Who is the author?
- Can you find the authority or credentials of the author?
- Can you find the authority or credentials of the publisher?
- What if there is no author for an internet source?
If you cannot find information regarding the authority of the author or publisher while evaluating sources, you should not use the source. For internet sources without an author, the reliability is in question. Websites or publications by government agencies or well-established non-profit organizations are more reliable even with the absence of a named author.
Evaluation criteria #2: Accuracy
Evaluate sources on the accuracy of information and bibliographic information by asking the following questions:
- Does the information in the article appear correct?
- Does the article have a bibliography or reference list?
- Is it clear where the author got his or her information?
- Is it obvious who is responsible for the information?
If you cannot verify that the information is correct or that the author is an expert on the topic, you should not use the source.
Evaluation criteria #3: Content
Evaluate sources based on the content by asking the following questions:
- Does the content address the topic effectively?
- Are the key questions about your topic answered within the content?
- Does the content seem like it is likely to help your research?
- Does the content provide any information that is new or useful?
While evaluating the content is important, it is not the only evaluation criteria in deciding to use a source. However, if the content is lacking or does not address your topic, you should not use the source.
Evaluation criteria #4: Relevance
Evaluate sources based on relevance by asking the following question: Is the information and content relevant to your research paper topic? Sometimes a source’s relevancy is not apparent until you have read all or most of the information. In many instances, however, you can judge the relevance by looking at the following aspects of a source:
- Table of contents
- Index, when applicable
Evaluation criteria #5: Objectivity
Evaluates sources on their objectivity and bias by asking the following questions:
- Is the objectivity of the source clear?
- Is there any obvious bias?
- Is the purpose obvious?
- Is the sole purpose of the article to give information, or does it promote or try to sell something?
The nature of your assignment and your topic determine how important it is for your sources to be objective. A lack of objectivity is not an automatic reason to dismiss a source if it fits the assignment and the topic while still allowing you to find other sources with opposing viewpoints.
Evaluation criteria #6: Audience
Evaluate sources based on the intended audience of the author by asking the following questions:
- What audience does the author appear to be addressing?
- Is the intended audience a group of experts or a more general audience?
- Is the content too simple, technical or advanced? Or is it well-suited to your topic and assignment?
The intended audience can influence your evaluation of a source, but it should not be the sole factor in your decision.
Evaluation criteria #7: Writing style
Evaluate sources based on the writing style by asking the following questions:
- Is the organization of the content logical?
- Is there a clear presentation of the argument?
- Is the text easy to read? Too wordy? Too formal? Too informal? Too choppy?
The writing style of the author of an original source influences whether the source is appropriate for your topic and assignment. If the style does not fit with what you are trying to accomplish, consider whether you want to keep the source as one to cite or to simply use it to consult.
Evaluation criteria #8: Currency
Evaluate sources based on currency by asking the following questions:
- When was the source published or written?
- Is the time of publication or writing important for your topic?
- Is there more current research available on the same topic?
- Is the date evident for any visual aids, such as graphs, charts or tables?
Currency is only important if your topic dictates using the most recent information available. For example, if you are writing a research paper about the Civil War, currency is not important. However, if you are writing about the effect of a 24-hour news cycle on human sensitivity, currency is important.
When evaluating sources, your assignment instructions play an important role as well because that is what dictates the type of information you are allowed or required to use. For example, if your instructor prohibits you from using internet sources that are not electronic copies of scholarly journal articles, no website or online multimedia is appropriate for your assignment, even if it meets all eight source evaluation criteria.
Apply the following evaluation criteria to all types of information (print, broadcast, and online).
Identify the author(s) and whether they are experts in their field.
You may need to check biographical sources, to see that your author is a recognized authority on the subject, such as Biography Index, Who's Who, or Contemporary Authors.
For web resources, identify the website's sponsor (university, company, organization, or individual).
Determine if the source contains a bibliography; this may indicate that the author incorporates research published by others.
Consider journalistic integrity: is the journalist credible? What is the news source publishing the article's reputation? In the case of news articles, journalists are not always experts. Regardless, they can still provide credible information. You should always evaluate the credentials and career of a journalist, and take a closer look at the news source that is publishing the information.
Current information is important, but currency means different things for different disciplines.
Consider context. Does the currency of the information impact the validity of your argument? Depending on your assignment, it may be better to use older resources. For example, if you are writing a history paper about World War II, using primary sources from the 1940s may be appropriate. Even though the sources are 50 years old, it can be useful in the context of your research.
Timeliness is especially important in the sciences and engineering. For example, if you are writing a paper about HIV treatment, a source from the 1990s will probably not be as good as a source from the past 3 years. Unless, of course, you are writing about the progress of treatments over three decades, in which case it would be appropriate to have both older and current sources.
What year was the work from your source produced?
For web resources, determine when the site was last updated. Also, check the links to see if they work properly. Broken links may indicate that the website hasn't been updated recently.
Note the source where the information appears. Is it published in a scholarly journal? Does it include a bibliography? Are sources appropriately cited in the text?
Is the book published by a university press or other reputable academic publisher?
Check review sources such as Book Review Index, or the online database Expanded Academic ASAP. Check Literary Market Place for questions about a publisher.
Use reasonably presented information.
Does the source material appear accurate and balanced, or is it heavily biased in one direction or another? Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion? Are there spelling, grammar or typographical errors?
What is the purpose of the information? Is it to inform, teach, sell, entertain or persuade? Do the authors/sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear? Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
Make sure the level of information is appropriate for your research.
Is it directed at a specialized or general audience?
Does the information relate to what you want to know about?
Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining which one(s) you will use? It is important to look widely; do not settle on the first source you find. Sources at the top of a list of search results aren't guaranteed to be relevant for your topic and appropriate sources for you to use; you must determine for yourself how well a source relates to your topic and whether it's appropriate to use for your purposes.
For example, you may be required to find and cite scholarly articles for a paper. Just because something was published in a peer reviewed journal doesn't mean it's necessarily a scholarly article - it may be a letter to the editor, or a book review, or an editorial. Your job is to identify whether the article you found from a scholarly journal is a good fit for your assignment - if it is, for example, an editorial or a book review, then it is likely not appropriate for your purposes and you should find something else to work with.
Primary vs. Secondary:
Primary sources are sometimes required in your research. These are firsthand, or original records of events, that include survey results, poems, diaries, ethnographies, artwork, data sets, statistics, or case studies.
The secondary aspect of sources comes into play when there is interpretation, analysis, synthesis, and/or restatement of these same events or materials in order to explain them.