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.