The SIFT Method

Learning Objectives

  • Differentiate between reliable and unreliable and popular and scholarly sources of information

As we will be learning about evaluating sources, let’s start with an activity to test your ability to sort fact from fiction. Read each of the following four scenarios and determine whether the statement is true or false. It’s not always easy to tell the difference. Go ahead and guess if you’re not sure—we’ll learn techniques for sorting fact from fiction later on. Good luck!

Try It

The SIFT Method

SIFT graphic showing S for stop, I for investigate the source, F for find better coverage, and T for trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.

Figure 1. Following the SIFT method can help you quickly and confidently evaluate sources online.

No matter how you did on the pretest, you probably found some of the questions tricky. It’s not always clear what is true or false and what sources of information are trustworthy. The SIFT method is a tool to help you better evaluate sources you find online. It is designed to help you with making quick judgments about information—just stopping when you read things like news articles or social media posts to ask yourself, “Does this seem questionable? Can I verify if this is accurate information?” These kinds of quick-assessment skills are also helpful to deeper research, as you want to make sure that you are looking at trustworthy and scholarly sources of information when conducting historical research or making claims about historical events. The four steps of the SIFT method are to: stop, investigate the source, find better coverage, and trace claims.

The SIFT Method


The first task is the simplest. STOP reminds you of two things.

First, when you first hit a page or post and start to read it — STOP. Ask yourself whether you know the website or source of the information, and what the reputation of both the claim and the website is. Don’t take it as fact or share media until you know what it is.

Second, when you want to verify information online, it can be easy to go down a rabbit hole, going off on tangents only distantly related to your original task. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed in your fact-checking efforts, STOP and take a second to remember your purpose. If you just want to repost, read an interesting story, or get a high-level explanation of a concept, it’s probably good enough to find out whether the publication is reputable. If you are doing deep research of your own, you may want to chase down individual claims in a newspaper article and independently verify them.

Quick and shallow investigations will form most of what we do on the web. Being able to quickly look at the website or source of information to determine if the information is likely credible or not will help you determine if you should continue reading the information or move on. There are several ways to quickly determine that a website is fake.

  1. Do a Visual Assessment. Look at the overall design, amount of ads, and use of altered images. Does the website seem high quality?
  2. Identify the News Outlet. Is the outlet well known and trustworthy?
  3. Check the URL. Does the URL seem legitimate?

Scholarly or Popular?

When applying the SIFT method to historical research, one of the quickest ways to assess the reliability of a source is by determining if it is a scholarly or popular source. Popular articles or blog posts are typically written by the author to entertain or inform a general audience. These are not considered reliable sources for historical research. Scholarly articles are written by researchers or experts in a particular field. They use specialized vocabulary, have extensive citations, and are often peer-reviewed. These articles are considered reliable sources for historical research. A peer review strengthens the credibility of a source.

The physical appearance of print sources can help you identify the type of source as well. Popular magazines and trade publications are usually glossy with many photos. Scholarly journals are usually smaller and thicker with plain covers and images. In electronic sources, you can check for bibliographies and author credentials or affiliations as potential indicators of scholarly sources.

Purpose Author Review Citations
To inform, entertain, or elicit an emotional response Staff writers, journalists, freelancers, bloggers Staff editor May not have citations, or may be informal (ex. according to… or links)
Scholarly Sources To share research or scholarship with the academic community Scholars/researchers Editorial board made up of other scholars and researchers. Some articles are peer-reviewed Bibliographies, references, endnotes, footnotes

Finding Scholarly Articles

To find scholarly articles, you’ll want to search using specific search tools, libraries, or databases. Note that you are very unlikely to find reliable scholarly sources just through a quick google search. Your school library and most public libraries have access to specific scholarly journals or databases that can get you access to the types of peer-reviewed articles you need. Google scholar can be good for finding journals, though using your school library will often reveal more helpful results. When you search within your library catalog, you’ll find search results from the things that your library owns, including books, articles, journals, etc., but you’ll also want to find materials that they don’t own. This means that you’ll want to search inside of databases (which you can also access through the library). Some of the most popular databases for history include:
  • America: History & Life with Full Text (EBSCO): Covers the history and culture of the United States and Canada, from prehistory to the present.
  • Historical Abstracts with Full Text (EBSCO): Covers the history of the world (excluding the United States and Canada) from 1450 to the present, including world history, military history, women’s history, history of education, and more.
  • JSTOR: Full-text access to the archives of 2,600+ journals and 35,000+ books in the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences.
  • Project MUSE: Full-text access to scholarly journals and e-books published by over 120 scholarly societies and university presses.


Use your school’s library website and find the page that lists historical databases. Take note of the recommended databases, or take a screenshot of the list, like this screenshot taken of results from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte:

History databases: Academic Search Complete, America: History and Life, Google Scholar, Historical Abstracts, JSTOR, Project Muse

This article explains how to take a screenshot.