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Evaluating Information: Home

This guide is meant to give an introduction on Sources: What they are, how to assess them, and other such points.

Source Types

Sources can be any one item of information where one receives information.  Below are some common ones you've probably heard about:

  • Non-fiction Books (or sections of books)
  • Journal Articles
  • Websites (or pages from them)
  • News items
  • Magazine Articles
  • Documentaries
  • Governmental or Legal Writings
  • Company documents

But here are less common ones:

  • Your own family's personal papers (like a grandma's journal)
  • Photographs, paintings, sculptures, buildings (or ruins of them)
  • Pieces of preserved clothing (called extant clothing), or items of archaeological or preserved discovery
  • A film, song, a dance piece, poem, short story, or novel (aka works of fiction)
  • Cookbooks or crafting manuals
  • A social media post or tweet
  • An interview you as the researcher conducted yourself either in person, over the phone, or digitally over email, chat or social media. 
  • A poster, pamphlet, signs or other ephemera
  • Meeting minutes
  • The list is almost endless

If your research requires out of the box sources, don't limit yourself, just know how to cite them.  

Useful websites for further information about these boxes

Source Credibility

You have always wondered if you can trust a source before you use it in your research, or if you're just trying to use it for debating a political point on Social Media and post a news link to support that given point.  Following these tabs inside the box will pose a series of questions and present some scenarios for your reflection so you can judge the quality of the source.

Knowing whether you can trust a source is important. 

First, you need to judge whether or not the list of sources you've been presented are useful and relevant to your own thesis, research questions, topic, or even the parameters of the paper requirements. 

The other questions that follow are something to judge the source overall and are uniform to any evaluator of the source.  However, this first, initial question is personal to your paper and your needs. 

  • Are you doing research on Teaching Children or Babies Sign Language but keep finding articles on deafness?  Then you've hit a bunch of irrelevant results for your research and should reassess your search terms.

You've determined that the source works for you but now you've really got to do the real test if this is a good source to use.   

First question: Does the source use citations?

Does the source enter into the academic conversation by quoting from other sources?  

Does it have in-text citations or footnotes/endnotes?  Does it have a bibliography?

If it does, that means it has done it's research and is not just spouting hard to prove data points.  If it doesn't can you really trust anything that it says especially hard to prove data points.  

Now you need to ask: Who wrote this source?

Can you trust a source without an author (and we're not talking about newswires like Reuters or Associated Press or websites, documents, reports, or statutes written by corporate authors such as a report by the American Cancer Society)?

Can you really trust a source where you can't figure out what kind of experience the author has on the topic?

  • An author who is not a doctor giving medical advice versus a true medical doctor
  • An author who is an expert in his/her field publishing in a peer reviewed journal versus someone just spouting nonsense on a random blog.

Now we are talking about sources written in the modern era, if you have run across a historical source that lacks an author, it may be because the author was never identified because the source (and origins of the document) have been lost through time--Beowulf is a prime example--or it would have been socially unacceptable or unsellable to have an author's name attached--prime example are the novels written by Jane Austen which were originally sold as written by a Lady. 

Now you've assessed that the author has good credentials.  You now have to ask, regardless of their credentials, is the information presented is actually correct?

  • You've seen stuff online on social media from doctors on Covid 19 where regardless if they are doctors, they spread differing pieces of information on it, to the point that you don't know what to believe.  Which doctor is presenting the accurate information?  Can you find consistency within several sets of data versus others?

If it's a set of data, has the method of the collection of said data been enumerated or listed within the source.  Has the data been originally collected by the author or been reported on by author? 

Judging accuracy may be a difficult thing to do, unless you've also gathered other sources to support your topic.  This just proves that it's vitally important never to just use one source for the supporting of your paper and thesis.  You may also need to perform some fact checking.

Now that you've assessed that the author is authoritative and the information accurate.  Now you've got to figure out what aim the material has. 

Why did the author write this piece?  To prove a point? To inform us and instruct us on some topic?  Or to satirize? To get even for some wrong? To provide political propaganda?

  • A fun historical example is Johann Burchard who lived during the historically accepted corrupt Borgia Papacy.  At one point, he was their clerk, and wrote a chronicle glowingly praising the reign of the Borgias over Rome.  But when he fell out of favor, he wrote an expose uncovering all of the corruption that he witnessed.  Which one is the correct version of his memories: the expose or the maybe propaganda piece? 

Is the author a liberal or a conservative politically?  Are they writing something that is on a hot button topic?

  • If their political leanings are apparent, will they skew absolutely correct information or neglect to include some information that will ultimately refute their point?
  • Will they have older facts that correctly support their point of view but not have more current information which does not support their bias?

Now here is a caveat.  No source or author is without bias.  Everyone has an opinion about something.  Most sources are out to prove a point.  So having a slant is almost necessary, but an egregious bias and using their own politics to taint their offerings is something to consider and question if one can trust the source or not. 

You've discovered the author knows his stuff.  You know through some fact checking and comparing with other sources on a similar subject, that the information is correct.  You've discovered that there is little bias or bias enough for your purposes.  But now you've got to figure out how up-to-date this information is.

  • In the early 1990s, medical researchers all thought that AIDS was spread by merely touching the skin of an infected person or by touching their blood with unbroken skin (like that blood would seep through the body).  But now we know that the infected blood or a dirty needle containing HIV on it must penetrate the subcutaneous layer.  So if you're doing research on the transmission of AIDS, unless you're tracking the history of how the science was discovered, do you think it's a good idea to use a source from the early 1990s even though it exists?

So there are time constraints about when something is up to date for your reference.

  • Generally for sciences it's 5 years.  (How many times have we heard on the news that eggs or milk or wine are bad for you only to hear a year later that these things are crucial to good health?  That's how fast science and scientific research changes.)
  • Generally for technology 2-3 years.  (How many times have we bought a new tablet or computer only to find that the device is entirely out of date by the time we get it home or at the very latest, by the time a month passes?)
  • However, for many fields you may want the most up to date information as possible, anyway--whether because your topic necessitates it or you know that a lot has changed in your field (and what field hasn't changed a lot over the last decade or so) and you know you need current information. You may not want to include articles that include No Child Left Behind when that was two or three Presidential Administrations ago, for example.  Or you may not want to consider a history source that claims that there were relatively few Native Americans on the land before "European Discovery" which is an old theory generally disproved by today's historical analysis. 

Now for an exercise, pretend you're doing research into Witchcraft in History.  Scan through the following sources, perform a Google search on the author (if provided) and judge according to the questions and the previous slides, which sources are the best to use.  Note, I have purposefully eliminated the need to ask the relevancy question for purposes of conciseness.   Also note, since this is a historical topic, currency may not prove an issue except for those who are knowledgeable about historiography, which for purposes of this guide is not necessary to have.  So assume every source has current information.

Information Cycle

Information Cycle

The following slides will provide examples of what the Information Cycle looks like.  Knowing the Information Cycle will be useful when determining what kind of sources you can get.  For example, you are doing something about something that happened only a week ago, you will know that you can only find information in newspapers (regardless if your instructor requires peer reviewed journals, so you may need to reassess your topic to be something a little less of the moment.)

This image: "The Information Cycle" from the "Information Cycle Guide" authored by Brenda Smith from TRU Libraries: Thompson Rivers University.  https://libguides.tru.ca/infocycle

Types of Information Needed

Sometimes you will also wonder what kind of sources I need for my paper. 

First

It is advised that you simply explore what is available.  

Second

Referring to the Information Cycle images above, you may want to figure out how new the topic is and what can be available to you.

  • 2020 Election: you'll probably only get news stories vs. 2016 Election will have a diversity of source types from the newspapers written at the time, to books written analyzing it.  

Third

You may want to assess what either your personally crafted research questions/thesis or your instructor's parameters for the assignment requires that you use.  

  • Note: If you need statistical information, unless it's a governmental site or an organizational report that specifically has lots of data readily apparent, you will need to skim the sources that you think may be relevant a bit to see if it does contain data points you need.

Fourth 

You have to remember that it's far more important to ask the questions above about "Source Evaluation" than worrying about the type of sources you should use. Obviously, using scholarly articles and books should be a priority if possible. However, don't confine yourself to books only or journal articles only or web sources only.  Find what sources are best, not what you assume is what sources are.  If you think that the only thing that you should use are books, then when you find more journal articles than books on your topic, you'll feel defeated but you really shouldn't be because those journal articles may be just what you need to prove your thesis and answer your research questions.  The same is in the reverse, if you think journal articles (unless a selection of peer reviewed journal articles are required) are the only things you should use, and you find only books, you'll again feel defeated.  This is proof that you should keep an open mind when discovering which sources work for your research questions, parameters of your assignment, or your thesis. 

Peer Reviewed Video

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary

You're asked to write a history essay using a variety of these sources but you don't know what they are.

Primary: Any source that was written at the time of the historical event. A Chronicle from a Medieval Monk (like Bede the Venerable).  A letter from a Birmingham jail. A diary of a Puritan Man (Samuel Sewall).  A newspaper reporting the wrong election results (Dewey Defeats Truman!) A family will or inventory.  A recorded news story.  Or it can be out of the box and not written.  A photograph of four men crossing the street (the Beatles on Abbey Road).  A blood stained dress (Jacqueline Kennedy's pink suit worn in November 1963). A deformed human skull (John Merrick's remains).  Money. 

Secondary: any source, usually books (or chapters in the book) or a journal article, which culls together these primary sources and tries to find an interpretation of why, how, what happened during a given period of time for a given topic, it could be as varied and large as a battlefield history of The American Revolution to a small microhistory of witch hunters in a small Northern Italian Renaissance Era town.

Tertiary: Sources which brings together many secondary sources, usually neglecting to use primary sources at all, and give an overview to the historical event. A history textbook is a tertiary source.