Consider the following questions when evaluating the suitability and credibility of information sources:
WHO Is the Author?
Academic sources will often include not only the authors’ names, but also their credentials (e.g., PhD), where they work, and their contact information. If an author’s information is not clear in this manner, you can easily assess their expertise by looking them up using an Internet search engine like Google.
Other types of sources may list either an individual, institution or organization as the author. Be wary of any bias or inaccurate information the source may contain based on the position that the author or authoring organization may hold in relation to the topic discussed.
WHAT Type of Source Is It?
Peer-reviewed journal articles and books published by academic presses typically contain more reliable, credible, objective information than information that has been posted to a website maintained by, for instance, a lobby group, government, or professional association, all of which may have certain ideological biases.
Academic sources will also be free of grammatical errors, and clearly list references to the sources they cite, which can be verified if necessary.
Academic sources like conference papers, subject encyclopedias, and theses may have useful information but have not undergone peer-review so may be most useful in terms of learning more about a topic and finding additional sources by exploring what they have cited.
WHERE Was It Published?
Try to find sources published by well-known, recognized publishers or organizations that specialize in producing academic literature. If a work is in an academic library there is a very good chance that it already meets the criteria for being a credible and reliable source. If you are not sure, try looking up the publisher in Google to learn more about the types of works it publishes, and its overall reputation. If you are unsure whether a journal uses a peer-review process, this information can be found on its website. You can also often find this information using a periodical directory called Ulrichsweb if your library is a subscriber to this database.
WHEN Was It Published?
Because it can take anywhere from a matter of months to a matter of years to publish a journal article or book, try to find works produced in the last ten years if you are researching a contemporary topic.
If you are working on an historical topic, currency may not be as important, and older works may in fact provide you with a useful window into a specific time-period that you are researching. Additionally, older seminal works in a discipline, for instance those of Margaret Mead and Franz Boas in anthropology, Abraham Maslow and Jean Piaget in psychology, and Pierre Bourdieu and Max Weber in sociology, provide you with valuable insights into the very foundations of a discipline and how researchers continue to approach and study the social world.
If a source does not provide a date, use it cautiously, if at all, since the information it contains may no longer be relevant. Reliable academic sources will always provide a year of publication on the work itself, and in a record for the work in a library database or catalogue.
WHY Was It Published?
When reading, keep an eye out for one-sided arguments, personal opinions, and gaps in research that can affect overall conclusions that can be drawn from the work. Government reports may, for instance, only talk about the economic and social benefits of oil pipelines and downplay the environmental risks. A newspaper commentary or blog post may criticize the healthcare system based only on the author’s personal, anecdotal experience. An author of a conference paper may only refer to “initial findings” from a study that is still in progress on how climate change has affected Inuit communities for the intended purpose of receiving feedback from other academics, with plans to release more comprehensive findings in a refereed journal article at a later date.
Overall, try to avoid sources that are clearly trying to sell something rather than provide information as a public service, to share findings, or to foster an open debate based on evidence that is supported by research.