Critical thinking is interwoven in all steps of the research process, and one of the places you will definitely use it is when you evaluate your sources. As you researched your sources, you may have developed a good sense of which sources are going to be the most useful in supporting your working thesis. However, the credibility of your research paper relates directly to your sources. Are your sources themselves valid? You need to consciously evaluate your sources in order to make final choices about using them in your research essay.
The two main questions you should ask yourself when evaluating sources are the following:
- 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 writing 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.
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?
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?
Prof: To answer this question, you’ll want to find out who’s talking about these issues. As Kenneth Burke put it, 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?
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.
To go into more depth into questions about suitability and trustworthiness of sources, consider the following.
Your task as a researcher is to determine the appropriateness of the information your source contains, for your particular research project. Ask this simple question: Will this source help me answer my research questions? 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?
- contain facts/opinions that support your working thesis
- contain illustrations or data that support your working thesis
- clearly explain their information
- are/were written by a well known authority or expert
- carefully cite the sources they used
- may not be related to the angle in your working thesis, and may not offer any relevant, important counter-argument
- may not contain any new information that advances your understanding of your topic
- may be too narrow or too broad in coverage of your topic
- may be from very general sources and not from a scholarly journal or peer-reviewed source
- may be from a scholarly journal but be too technical or difficult for you to understand
- may be out of date
- do not cite the sources they used
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.
As a review, view the following video, which clearly identifies a variety of questions to ask in order to evaluate sources.