Online Sources: Accuracy and Purpose

Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the information

Key Question: How free from error is this print source?

Establishing the accuracy, or relative accuracy, of information is an important part of evaluating the reliability of a 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

Key Question: Who is this information written for or this source developed for?

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.



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