When conducting secondary research, it important not to merely collect the first sources that appear in a search. Of course you want the sources you do collect to be relevant to your research topic, but you also need to ensure that they are high quality, credible sources, with content and information that will be convincing to your readers. This means you need to evaluate your research, examining the sources you run into and selecting only those that are the most reliable and credible.
One method often used to evaluate secondary research to apply the criteria of Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose (abbreviated CRAAP). Below is an explanation of how to apply each of these criteria.
Currency: the timeliness of the information
Determining when an online source was published or produced is an aspect of evaluating information. The date information was published or produced tells you how current it is or how contemporaneous it is with the topic you are researching.
Key indicators of the currency of the information are:
- date of copyright
- date of publication
- date of last update
- dates of sources cited
- date of patent or trademark
Currency matters in a lot of writing. When you use current sources you show your readers that you are up-to-date with your topic. Of course, there are times when an older source may help you, especially when you want to establish historical context, but in many writing situations you want to find the most recent information. It can be tricky sometimes to determine the date of publication on online sources, and occasionally you may not be able to determine a date. Keep in mind that better sources will contain a date because the creators are concerned with giving their audience as much information as possible. For example, online publications will almost always contain a date. Many websites will also contain dates, even if it is just the year of publication. If you don’t see a date at the beginning of the material you are examining, scroll to the absolute bottom of the page where you will often find copyright information. Here you will normally find a year of publication and/or update, too. On our sample site, Red Cup Rebellion, articles all have dates because the site publishes new material frequently, so you would be able to have an exact date. Notice the updated year is also listed at the bottom of the page, too, though.
Relevance: the importance of the information to your needs
When you read through your source, consider how the information might effectively contribute to your paper. You should also consider whether the source provides sufficient coverage of the topic. Sources with broad, shallow coverage mean that you need to find other sources to obtain adequate details about your topic. Sources with a very narrow focus or a distinct bias mean that you need to find additional sources to obtain further information or other viewpoints on your topic. Some questions to consider are:
- Does the information relate to my topic or answer my question?
- Who is the intended audience?
- Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e., not too simple or advanced)?
- Did I look at a variety of sources before deciding to use this one?
It is important to think about your specific focus and questions when you do research online. If you are writing about how the 2015 Ole Miss football recruiting class has performed, Red Cup Rebellion might be a useful source in some ways. If, however, you are writing about how head injuries might impact football players in the long term, you are better off looking at sources written by experts in science, medicine, head trauma, football injuries, and long-term health, even if you find an article on Red Cup Rebellion about a Rebel player’s second concussion during a season (if you wanted to note this fact in your writing, you could do so without a source).
Authority: The Source of the Information
Determining the knowledge and expertise of the author(s) is an important aspect of evaluating the reliability of an online source. Anyone can make an assertion or a statement about some thing, event, or idea, but only someone who studies or understands what that thing, event, or idea is can make a reasonably reliable statement or assertion about it. Some external indications of knowledge of or expertise are:
- a formal academic degree in a subject area
- professional or work-related experience–business professionals, government agency personnel, sports figures, etc. have expertise on their area of work
- active involvement in a subject or organization by serious amateurs who spend substantial amounts of personal time researching and studying that subject area
- organizations, agencies, institutions, corporations with active involvement or work in a particular subject area
Red Cup Rebellion is a good site to examine when we are thinking about authority. The site is not officially sanctioned by the University of Mississippi, and the academic/professional credentials of the authors are not clear. If you search “Ole Miss sports” on Google, the site is not one of the first to appear. These might be warning signs that the source is not credible in some circumstances; however, if you look back to the third bullet point above, the site definitely meets the criteria. The site looks professional, is well-maintained, and is hosted on a popular and reliable platform. It certainly passes the eye test in many ways, but as a researcher it is your job to make sure you evaluate material carefully before using it in your work. It is clear by looking over the work on Red Cup Rebellion that the authors are knowledgeable and passionate fans, but some readers might expect more objectivity from sources. That is why you should understand what the source is and how you want to use it. Additionally, if you were to use a source like Red Cup Rebellion on a paper about, say, why head football coach Hugh Freeze’s contract should be extended, you would want to make it clear that your information is coming from a website run by fans . . . knowledgeable fans, yes, but still fans.
Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the information
Establishing the accuracy, or relative accuracy, of information is an important part of evaluating the reliability of an online source. Fact-checking a source is relatively straight-forward; however, it is also important to consider the relative accuracy of opinions, interpretations, and ideas, that is, the intellectual integrity of the source.
Consider these questions:
- Are the sources appropriately cited in the text and listed in the references?
- Are quotations cited correctly and in context? Out of context quotations can be misleading and sometimes completely erroneous.
- Are there exaggerations, omissions, or errors? (Note that these are difficult to identify if you use only one source of information. Always use several different sources of information on your topic. Analyzing what different sources say about a topic is one way to understand that topic.)
In addition to errors of fact and integrity, you need to watch for errors of logic. Errors of logic occur primarily in the presentation of conclusions, opinions, interpretations, editorials, ideas, etc.
Some indications that information is accurate are:
- the same information can be found in other reliable sources
- the experiment can be replicated and returns the same results
- the sources used for documentation are known to be generally reliable
- the author of the information is known to have expertise on that subject
- the presentation is free from logical fallacies or errors
- quotations are “in context”-the meaning of the original work is kept in the work which quotes the original
- quotations are correctly cited
- acronyms are clearly defined at the beginning
Some indications that information may not be accurate are:
- facts cannot be verified or are contradicted in other sources
- sources used are known to be unreliable or highly biased
- bibliography of sources used is inadequate or non-existent
- quotations are taken out of context and given a different meaning
- acronyms are not defined and the intended audience is a general one
- presence of one or more logical fallacies
- authority cited is another part of the same organization
Accuracy and authority are related in some ways. That said, our example site is a good one because the world of sports is quite a binary one. On one hand, statistics are absolute. If the UM baseball team beat Auburn 4-2 and hit four solo home runs in the process, reporting the information is simply a matter of getting down the numbers. There isn’t really any room for straying from the facts. On the other hand, sports prognostication and analysis is a huge business these days. An article on why the 2017 UM baseball team missed the NCAA Tournament is another story. Sure, there would be the numbers such as overall record, RPI, record against top-25 teams, etc. These are all facts, and you don’t even need a source to list them in your own writing. But there is also the opinion aspect. An author on Red Cup Rebellion may have a strong opinion that the infield is too weak or that the manager isn’t using his bullpen effectively. Is this accurate information? The answer isn’t easy, and it is tied in some ways to authority. Are any other sources making the same claims? Can you point to specific instances to support the claim? Does the author bring in quotations from the manager or others to illustrate the opinion? Are there logical errors (e.g., “if the Rebels didn’t have so-and-so pitching, they would have won over 40 games this year”; this is unprovable and is thus not a good piece of information)? Remember, our example site, like so many other websites, is run by people who probably aren’t the most objective observers. Your job as a researcher is to evaluate information for reliability, truthfulness, and correctness, even if it sounds great on the surface.
Purpose: the reason the source exists
Identifying the intended audience of the source is another aspect of evaluating information. The intended audience generally determines the style of presentation, the level of technical detail, and the depth of coverage. You should also consider the author’s objectivity. Is he/she trying to persuade? Does he/she present any bias? While it is unlikely that anything humans do is ever absolutely objective, it is important to establish that the information you intend to use is reasonably objective, or if it is not, to establish exactly what the point of view or bias is. There are times when information expressing a particular point of view or bias is useful, but you must use it consciously. You must know what the point of view is and why that point of view is important to your project.
For example, books on food sanitation written for children, for restaurant workers, or for research microbiologists will be very different even though they all cover the same topic.
Some indications of the intended audience are:
- highly technical language, complex analysis, very sophisticated/technical tools can indicate a technical, professional, or scholarly audience
- how-to information or current practices are frequently written by experts for practitioners in that field
- substantive and serious presentations of a topic with not too much technical language are generally written for the educated lay audience
- popular language, fairly simple presentations of a topic, little or no analysis, inexpensive tools can indicate a general or popular audience
- bibliographies, especially long bibliographies, are generally compiled by and for those doing research on that topic
We’ve covered some of the idea of purpose in other areas, but this is a final reminder that you as the researcher are in charge of the source material you present to your audience. Our example site, Red Cup Rebellion, is a fan site written for other Rebel fans who want something a bit more colorful and opinionated than the school’s official sports page. This is great in many ways, and the site can be a good source depending on your own purpose in your writing, but it is clear there are limitations to its effectiveness. Remember the parts about objectivity and bias in the passage above.