Critical thinking is required in all steps of the research process, and one of the earliest places you will use it is when you collect and evaluate your sources. You have already begun collecting sources for your project, and perhaps you even have a sense of which sources are going to be the most useful. The credibility of your research is a function of your sources. If you consult scholarly sources in your field, you will have a better understanding of your issue and provide a well-supported, respectable position. If, on the other hand, you consult only “soft” source material (magazines, for example), your research is going to lack the depth it needs to be convincing.
The two main questions you should ask yourself when evaluating sources are:
- Is this source suitable?
- Is this source trustworthy?
Not every suitable source is trustworthy, and not every trustworthy source is suitable. In Marvin’s example that follows, you’ll see that the online professor encourages Marvin to talk to the right sources. Remember that Marvin already learned about the importance of walking to the right places to find good sources. Now, Marvin needs to talk with his sources in order to become a part of the conversation on his topic. To do this, he needs to find authors who are trustworthy and knowledgeable about his research question.
Finding Trustworthy Sources
Marvin: If I used a university or government website on bottled water quality, readers would trust me more than if I just used a bottled water company website?
O-Prof: Yes. But to dig deeper into the question of trust, let’s move on to a second metaphor: talking. Although the metaphor of walking is useful for understanding how to find and document sources, it can give the impression that sources are separate, inert, and neutral things, waiting to be snatched up like gold nuggets and plugged into your writing. In reality, sources are parts of overlapping knowledge networks that connect meanings and the people that make and use them. Knowledge networks are always in flux, since people are always making new meaning. Let’s go back to your health and environment project. Refresh my memory. What kinds of questions do you need answers to before you can write your paper?
Marvin: Well, I need to know if bottled water is truly healthier like the beverage companies claim. Or would I be just as well off drinking tap water?
O-Prof: To answer this question, you’ll want to find out who’s talking about these issues. As Kenneth Burke put it in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, you can think of sources as voices in an ongoing conversation about the world:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (110–111)
The authors of texts aren’t speaking aloud, of course, but they’re making written statements that others can “listen” and “respond” to. Knowing which texts you can trust means understanding which authors you can trust.
Marvin: How do I figure that out?
O-Prof: It helps to know who the authors are. What they’re saying. Where, when, and to whom they’re saying it. And what their purposes are. Imagine the world as divided into many parlors like the one Kenneth Burke described. You’d want to go to the parlors where people who really know something are talking about the topics you’re interested in.
Your task as a researcher is to determine the appropriateness of the information your source contains, for your particular research project. It is a simple question, really: will this source help me answer the research questions that I am posing in my project? Will it help me learn as much as I can about my topic? Will it help me write an interesting, convincing essay for my readers?
Here are some reasons to include a source and its information:
- Contains facts/opinions that you need
- Contains illustrations or data you need
- Contains an overview to establish the context of your paper
- Was written by a well known authority or expert
- Contains a point of view that illustrates something you are trying to establish
- Exemplifies something
- May have a clear explanation of something
Reasons to exclude information:
- Is not from a scholarly journal
- Is from a scholarly journal but be too difficult for you to understand
- Is out of date
- Does not approach the topic you are researching from the same discipline/field
- Does not contain any new information
- Is too narrow (or too broad) in coverage
To determine the trustworthiness of a source, you want to ensure that a source is current, written by an expert, accurate, and unbiased. You’ll want to consider the rhetorical context of a source, including its purpose, audience, and focus.
One excellent tool to examine both the reliability and trustworthiness of a source is the CRAAP method, which stands for:
- Currency: The timeliness of the information
- Relevance: The importance of the information for your needs
- Authority: The source of the information
- Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the information
- Purpose: The reason the information exists