Linda Suskie

  A Common Sense Approach to Assessment & Accreditation

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Helping Students Evaluate the Credibility of Sources

Posted on September 16, 2016 at 6:05 AM

Like many Americans, I have been appalled by this year’s presidential election train wreck. I am dismayed in so many ways, but perhaps no more so than by the many American citizens who either can’t or choose not to distinguish between credible and what I like to call incredible sources of information. Clearly we as educators are not doing enough to help our students learn how to do this.

 

I think part of problem is that we in higher education have historically focused on teaching our students to use only academic library resources, which have been vetted by professionals and are therefore credible. But today many of our students will never access a college library after they graduate—they’ll be turning to what I call the Wild West of the internet for information. So today it’s vital that we teach our students how to vet information themselves.

 

A number of years ago, I had my students in my first-year writing courses write a research paper using only online sources. Part of their assignment was to identify both credible and non-credible sources and explain why they found some credible and others not. Here’s the guidance I gave them:

 

Evaluating sources is an art, not an exact science, so there is no one set of rules that will help you definitively separate credible sources from non-credible sources. Instead, you have to use thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation to judge for yourself whether a source is sufficiently credible for you to use in your research. The following questions will help you decide.

 

What is the purpose of the source? Serious sources are more credible than satiric or humorous ones. Sources intended to inform, such as straight news stories, may be more credible than those intended to persuade, such as editorials, commentaries, and letters to the editorial, which may be biased.

 

Is the author identified? A source with an identified author(s) may be more credible than one without an author, although authoritative organizations (e.g., news organizations, professional associations) may publish credible material without an identified author.

 

Who is the author? A credible source is written by someone with appropriate education, training, or experience to write with authority on the topic. An unknown writer is less credible than a frequently published writer, and a student is less credible than a professor. If you feel you need more information on the author, do a database search and/or Google search for the author’s name.

 

Who published or sponsored the source? A scholarly journal is generally more credible than a popular magazine or newspaper. Sources whose purpose is to sell a product or point of view—including many “news” organizations and websites—may be less credible than those whose purpose is to provide impartial information and services. A website with a URL extension of .edu, .gov, or .org may be more credible than one ending in .com (but not necessarily--.edu, .gov, and .org sites often exist to promote a particular point of view). A source published by a reputable publisher or organization is often more credible than one published independently by the author or one published by a fly-by-night organization, because a reputable publisher or organization provides additional review and quality control.

 

How complete is the source’s information? Sources with more complete coverage of a topic may be more credible that those than provide limited coverage.

 

Is the content balanced or biased? Sources that present a balanced point of view are often more credible than those that clearly have a vested interest in the topic. If the author argues for one point of view, does he or she present opposing views fairly and refute them persuasively?

 

Are information, statements, and claims documented or unsupported? Sources that provide thorough, complete documentation for their information and claims are generally more credible than those that make unsupported or scantily-supported statements or claims. For example, information based on a carefully-designed research project is more credible than information based only on the author’s personal observations.

 

Has the source, author, publisher, and/or sponsor been recognized by others as credible? Sources found through academic databases such as Lexis Nexis or Infotrac are more credible than those only found through Google. Sources frequently reviewed, cited, or linked by others are more credible than those that no other expert or authority mentions or uses. You can do a database search and/or Google search for reviews of a source and to see how often it has been cited or linked by others. To look for links to a source, search on Google for “link:” and the URL (e.g., link:www.towson.edu) and see how many links are found.

 

Is the material well-written? Material that is clear, well-organized and free of spelling and grammatical errors is more credible than poorly-written material.

 

What is the date the material was published or last updated? Material with a clear publication date is more credible than undated material. For time-sensitive research topics, recent information is more credible than older information. Web sources that are updated regularly and well-maintained (e.g., no broken links) may be more credible than those that are posted and then neglected.

 

What are your own views and opinions? Don’t bring prejudices to your search. It’s easy to think that sources with which you agree are more credible than those with which you disagree. Keep an open, critical mind throughout your search, and be willing to modify your thesis or hypothesis as you learn more about your topic.

Categories: Practical Tips

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