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INFOhio Citation Guide: Evaluating Sources

Technology makes it easy to copy and share ideas and information. Learn how to maintain academic integrity while you are doing your research.

Why Evaluate Your Sources?

Evaluating sources is one of the most important parts of research. By using the questions included in The CRAP Test (below), you will be able to evaluate the books, articles, websites, and other sources you find on your topic. 

INFOhio Tools for Research

These tools include lots of helpful information on gathering, evaluating, and citing your sources.

ISearch

Just getting started with your research? Try a search in ISearch.

The CRAP Test

Is current material important for your topic or assignment?

 

Currency or timeliness of information may or may not be a concern depending on your research topic. Current information is particularly important when you're researching a topic in a quickly changing field like science, technology, or social policy. Also, your professor may put limits on the age of information you're allowed to use, for example, not older than five years.

Some things to consider:

  • Are you researching an evolving topic, where facts continue to emerge and opinions are fluid?
  • Do you need historical background on your topic?
  • Does your assignment require you to use sources written or published within a certain timeframe?
When was the source written, published, or updated?

 

To determine when a source was written or published, look for its copyright or publication date. You can also look for the publication date of any sources the author cites: the publication itself is usually just slightly newer than its most recent cited source.

If it's a website, when was it last updated? Are there many broken links? A website with a lot of broken links should be considered suspect. If the site’s publisher doesn’t maintain the functionality of the site, you cannot be sure its content is current.

The most important question to ask is whether or not the information in the book, article, or website is outdated or no longer accurate.

Bias

 

Writers often have opinions about their subject. It's important to determine if the information being presented is biased (promotes one perspective) or balanced (gives equal weight to opposing viewpoints). An example of bias is the PC versus Mac rivalry. A website dedicated to praising the virtues of Macs is likely to be biased against PCs. 

Biased material may still be useful as long as it contains reliable factual information along with the authors’ opinions. However, you must recognize and account for the bias in your use of the material. It is not always easy to recognize bias – especially if you agree with the author’s perspective. When looking for bias, ask the following questions

  • Does the author let the reader know if the topic is controversial?
  • Does the author provide facts or only opinions?
  • Does the author provide evidence to support the facts?
  • Does the author make significant use of ambiguous terms such as “might,” “could,” “should,” “may,” or “if”?
  • ls the language used likely to create strong emotions (negative or positive)?
Cited Sources

 

The authors’ use of other sources on the topic is an important indicator of how well they have researched the topic themselves. When evaluating a book, article, or website, ask the following questions:

  • Does the author discuss relevant information from other sources?
  • Does the author cite those sources via footnotes, a bibliography, or references?
  • If there is original research, does the author describe methodology?
  • For websites, do the links from the site go to other sites with reliable information? For instance, if a site dedicated to information about drinking and driving has links to government statistics, the information it provides is probably reliable.
Authorship

Ask a number of questions before determining that the author(s) of a book, article, or website are authorities on your topic.

  • Are the authors well known in the field in which they are writing? What are their reputations?
  • Have you seen their names mentioned in other people’s books, articles, or websites?
  • What are their affiliations? For instance, are they associated with a university, a think tank, a government agency, etc.?
  • What are their credentials? What about their education or experience makes them an expert?

If you don’t know the answer to at least some of these questions, it's time to investigate. You can start by looking for information about the author in biographical sources or on the Internet. The library provides a variety of print and online biographical resources.

Publishers of Books

Knowing who published a book may be very important in helping you decide if the material is useful for your research. When you're evaluating a book, ask the following questions:

  • ls the publisher one that specializes in your topic?
  • Is the publisher a university press?
  • Is the publisher an organization? If so, is the organization authoritative? Does the organization have an agenda?
  • Is the book self-published by an individual author?
  • Is the publisher a vanity press (a press that will publish any individual’s book for a printing fee)?

The answers to some of these questions may be found at the publisher’s website. If you need help investigating a publisher, ask your professor or a librarian.

Publishers of Periodicals

When you're evaluating an article, ask the following questions:

  • In what type of periodical was it published? Scholarly journal? Magazine? Newspaper? Professional journal?
  • Does the publisher have a good reputation in the field you are studying?
Publishers of Websites

When you're evaluating a website, ask the following questions:

  • Is the website hosted by or sponsored by a government agency (.gov, .mil)?
  • Is the website sponsored by an organization (.org)? If so, what is the reputation of the organization?
  • Is the website affiliated with a college or university (.edu)?
  • Is it a commercial website (.com, .biz)?

The type of site does not necessarily indicate the value of the information provided. The following are only general guidelines:

  • Information from .gov websites is considered reliable and/or official.
  • Organizations often have agendas; in other words, they exist to persuade others. However, some provide extremely good information. One example is the American Cancer Society.
  • .edu websites may report faculty research, class lectures, etc. They may also include student web pages that reflect interest only.
  • Commercial websites exist to sell you something, so must be evaluated with extra care.
Three Types of Purpose

Every author and publisher has a purpose. As a rule, this purpose falls into one (or a combination) of the following three categories:

  1. To inform
  2. To entertain
  3. To persuade

When evaluating any source, you should consider its purpose in light of your topic and research requirements. To identify a source’s purpose, ask these questions:

  • Why was this source created? To educate? To share a common interest? To promote a point of view?
  • Does the source try to persuade you to adopt an opinion or perspective?
  • Does it publicize an issue?
  • Does it advertise a service or product?