Why Evaluate Sources?
Contact: Prof. Monty L. McAdoo, User Education Librarian (Room 231), 814-732-1070
While retrieving information is often relatively straightforward, evaluating the information retrieved is not. Determining the accuracy, validity, currency, and similar information about a source is often very difficult, particularly if you don’t know much about the author. This page answers some of the more commonly asked questions about evaluating sources in general.
Why evaluate resources?
Evaluating sources helps insure you get the best information enabling you to make good decisions. In college, if you use bad information in a research report, your grade will probably suffer. In the real world, you could be sued, lose your job, or worse. On a more practical level, think about going in for surgery. Would you rather have a surgeon who operates under current, accurate information or one who uses dated, incorrect information?
What is “peer reviewed”?
A peer reviewed journal or article is one that is reviewed by professionals in the field before it is published. They tend to be more specialized and generally are more scholarly, more academic in their focus. For this reason, the periodicals you find in the grocery store or through Publisher’s Clearinghouse are typically not peer reviewed. Most databases allow you to limit your search to peer reviewed publications.
What’s the best type of resource?
It depends on your information need. Because they take more effort and time to produce, books tend to cover topics in more detail. The disadvantage is that the material is often somewhat dated by the time it’s published. Articles are generally better if you want the most current information but they lack the depth of a book. The best research will generally combine both formats.
What about Web sites?
Web sites pose their own unique set of problems. While there is a lot of good information on the Internet, it is often difficult to determine what, if any, credibility a site has. Many of the same factors affecting the usefulness of books and articles apply to Web sites as well.
Evaluating source material effectively involves two steps.
Step One - Know your context
Research exists in a context. That is, when you conduct research, you do it with a specific set of guidelines in mind. Some of the things to consider include:
1) Format of your final product (e.g. speech, paper)
2) Your audience (e.g. age, educational background)
3) Your purpose (e.g. present new findings, present overview).
For example, say your topic is elephants. A presentation to a group of zoo keepers needing to know how to care for a pregnant elephant is going to be different than a presentation to small children just wanting to learn about elephants in general.
Step Two - Evaluate your information
Once you’ve clearly defined your context and have determined exactly what types of information you need, you can begin to evaluate sources to determine if they are appropriate to that need.
While there are certain criteria specific to evaluating periodicals and evaluating Web sites, there are five criteria which can be applied to all information resources to determine their appropriateness -- CACAO.
- Sometimes older information is desirable to provide a context for the present and/or to compare/contrast.
- Is the information primary or secondary? No information is better than "bad," outdated, or inaccurate information.
- Does what you've found support or contradict other things you've read? Is the topic covered from a general or a particular perspective (e.g. educational vs. psychological)?
- What are the author's credentials? Has (s)he done previous research on the topic? Are references listed for you to verify what's presented and/or seek additional information?
- Does the author seem to favor one side of an issue more than another? Does (s)he work for a company or organization that might be biased one way or another towards an issue?