Thinking Critically About Sources

a puzzle piece

Evaluating sources often involves piecing together clues.

Source evaluation usually takes place in two stages:

  • First you try to determine which sources are credible and relevant to your assignment.
  • Later, you try to decide which of those relevant and credible sources contain information that you actually want to quote, paraphrase, or summarize. This requires a closer reading, a finer examination of the source.

This lesson teaches the first kind of evaluation—how to weed out sources that are irrelevant and not credible and how to “weed in” those that are relevant enough and credible enough.

Because there often aren’t clear-cut answers when you evaluate sources, most of the time you have to make inferences–educated guesses from available clues–about whether to use information from the website or other source.

The clues are factors you should consider when trying to decide whether a source is:

  • A relevant source of information – Is it truly about your topic and from the right time period?
  • A credible source of information – Is there sufficient reason to believe it’s accurate?

Good Enough for Your Purpose?

Not every resource you turn up in your searches will be credible and relevant enough to meet your information needs. So, how will you ferret out the very best to use?

Sources should always be evaluated relative to your purpose–why you’re looking for information.

Your information needs will dictate:

  • What kind of information will help.
  • How serious you consider the consequences of making a mistake by using information that turns out to be inaccurate. When the consequences aren’t very serious, it’s easier to decide a site and its information are good enough for your purpose. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for always having accurate information, regardless.
  • How hard you’re willing to work to get the credible, timely information that suits your purpose. (What you’re learning here will make it easier.)

Thus, your standards for relevance and credibility may vary, depending on whether you need, say:

  • Information about a personal health problem
  • An image you can use on a poster
  • Evidence to win a bet with a rival in the dorm
  • Dates and times a movie is showing locally
  • A game to have fun with
  • Evidence for your argument in a term paper

For your research assignments, the consequences may be great if you use information that is not relevant or not credible.

What Do You Already Know?

You must already be continually evaluating information sources in your personal life. Think for a minute about what information you have acted on today (where to go, what to do, what to eat, whether to read this page, etc.). What helped you decide whether the information was relevant and credible?

Which of the factors below do you consider to be criteria for evaluating sources of information?

  • My instructor recommended the source
  • Other sources I like are linked to it
  • I know who runs the site
  • Its information makes sense with what I already know
  • I recognize the truth when I see it
  • The site fits with how I was raised
  • All my friends accept its information / A friend recommended the website
  • I’ve used similar sources before / I’ve used the source before and nothing bad happened
  • The website is easy to use / It has all the information I need so I don’t have to go to a lot of sites
  • What kind of site it is / The website looks professional

You probably chose at least several factors that we would agree with. Take a look at what we recommend on the next page.

Activity: Quick Check

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