One excellent tool to examine both the suitability 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
The following video offers a good explanation of these points of analysis.
Currency: The Timeliness of the Information
Determining when an item of information was published or produced is an aspect of evaluating information. The date the information was published or produced tells you how current it is or how relevant it is to the topic you are researching. For example, if you were writing a research paper 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 writing a research paper on the feelings of college students about the Vietnam War during the1960s, 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 source will effectively support your argument and how you can use the source in your research essay. You should also consider whether the source provides sufficient coverage of the topic. Information sources with broad, shallow coverage mean that you need to find other sources of information to obtain adequate details about your topic. Information sources with a very narrow focus or a distinct bias mean that you need to find additional sources to obtain the information on other aspects of your topic. Some questions to consider are:
- Does the information relate to my topic, research question, or angle in my working thesis?
- Who is the source’s intended audience?
- Is the information at an appropriate level (e.g., not too simple or advanced) for my needs?
- 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 is an important aspect of evaluating the reliability of information. Anyone can make an assertion or a statement about some thing, event, or idea, but only someone who knows or understands what that thing, event, or idea is can make a reasonably reliable assertion about it. Some external indications of expertise are:
- a formal academic degree in a subject area
- professional or work-related experience, e.g., businessmen, government agency personnel, sports figures, etc. have expertise in their areas 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 information. It is easier to establish the accuracy of facts than it is opinions, interpretations, or ideas. The more an idea, opinion, or other piece of information varies from the accepted point of view on a particular topic, the harder it is to establish its accuracy. An important aspect of accuracy is the intellectual integrity of the item:
- 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? These are difficulty to identify if you use only one source of information, so always use several different sources of information. Analyzing what different sources say about a topic is one way to determine exaggerations, omissions, and errors.
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 documentation provided in support of the information is substantive
- the sources used for documentation are 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” so that the intended meaning of the information quoted is retained
- quotations, paraphrases, and summaries are correctly cited
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
- presence of one or more logical fallacies
- authority cited is another part of the same organization
Purpose: The Reason the Information Exists
Identifying the intended audience of the information and identifying the author’s purpose are other important aspects of evaluating information. The intended audience of an item generally determines the style of presentation, the level of technical detail, and the depth of coverage. Determining the intended audience of a particular piece of information will help you decide whether or not the information is too basic, too technical, too general, or just right for your needs. The intended audience can also indicate the potential reliability of the item because some audiences require more documentation than others. For example, items produced for scholarly or professional audiences are generally produced by experts and go through a peer review process. Items produced for the mass market frequently are not produced by experts and generally do not go through an evaluation process. 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 in “X” 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, with little or no analysis, can indicate a general or popular audience
- bibliographies, especially long bibliographies, are generally compiled by and for those doing research on that topic
You should also consider the author’s purpose. Is the information intended to inform or persuade? Does the author intend to present a 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.