Currency: The Timeliness of the Information
The date a print source was published or produced tells you how current it is or how contemporaneous it is with the topic you are researching. For example: If you were doing a project on the survival of passengers in car crashes, you would need the most recent information on automobile crash tests, structural strength of materials, car wreck mortality statistics, etc. If, on the other hand, you were doing a project on the feelings of college students about the Vietnam War during the 1960s, you would need information written in the 1960s by college students (primary sources) as well as materials written since then about college students in the 1960s (secondary sources). Key indicators of the currency of the information are:
- date of copyright
- date of publication
- date of revision or edition
- dates of sources cited
- date of patent or trademark
Relevance: The Importance of the Information for 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?
Authority: The Source of the Information
Determining the knowledge and expertise of the author(s) is an important aspect of evaluating the reliability of a 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
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 a source. Students are familiar with double-checking the facts in a source; 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 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
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.
The following are some indications of the intended audience:
- 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