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Library Research Skills for College Students: Step-by-Step

A step-by-step in-depth start to finish guide through the research process.

How to Evaluate Sources

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The 3 methods for evaluation sources listed on this page are different and yet the same. They all ask some version of the questions below.

 

 

  • What are the author's credentials? Are they qualified to write about your topic?
  • Is the author biased a certain way? Are they a member of a strongly-leaning group or organization?
  • What year was the article or source published? Is it still relevant today? Does it provide the most up-to-date information?
  • How reliable is the source? Is it from a reputable author or publisher? If it's a book, university presses are reputable sources. Do you recognize the author's name; if not, are there credentials (their job title or academic rank) that tell you about the author's expertise?
  • How useful is the source in helping you address your topic?
  • Is it scholarly? Does your assignment require you to use only scholarly sources?

ACT UP Method of Evaluation

ACT UP Evaluation Resources

The S.I.F.T. Method of Evaluating Sources

Mike Caulfield, Washington State University digital literacy expert, has helpfully condensed key fact-checking strategies into a short list of four moves, or things to do to quickly make a decision about whether or not a source is worthy of your attention. It is referred to as the “SIFT” method:

SIFT: Stop. Investigate the source. Find better coverage. Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context
SIFT icon for "stop" shows hand over stop signStop - When you initially encounter a source of information and start to read it—stop. Ask yourself whether you know and trust the author, publisher, publication, or website. If you don’t, use the other fact-checking moves that follow, to get a better sense of what you’re looking at. In other words, don’t read, share, or use the source in your research until you know what it is, and you can verify it is reliable.

This is a particularly important step, considering what we know about the attention economy—social media, news organizations, and other digital platforms purposely promote sensational, divisive, and outrage-inducing content that emotionally hijacks our attention in order to keep us “engaged” with their sites (clicking, liking, commenting, sharing). Stop and check your emotions before engaging!

 

SIFT icon for "Investigate" shows a magnifying glass Investigate the Source -  You don’t have to do a three-hour investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you’re reading a piece on economics, and the author is a Nobel prize-winning economist, that would be useful information. Likewise, if you’re watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption, you would want to be aware if the video was produced by the dairy industry. This doesn’t mean the Nobel economist will always be right and that the dairy industry can’t ever be trusted. But knowing the expertise and agenda of the person who created the source is crucial to your interpretation of the information provided.

When investigating a source, fact-checkers read “laterally” across many websites, rather than digging deep (reading “vertically”) into the one source they are evaluating. That is, they don’t spend much time on the source itself, but instead they quickly get off the page and see what others have said about the source. They open up many tabs in their browser, piecing together different bits of information from across the web to get a better picture of the source they’re investigating.

 

SIFT icon for Find Better Coverage shows a check mark

Find Better Coverage - What if the source you find is low-quality, or you can’t determine if it is reliable or not? Perhaps  you don’t really care about the source—you care about the claim that source is making. You want to know if it is true or false. You want to know if it represents a consensus viewpoint, or if it is the subject of much disagreement. A common example of this is a meme you might encounter on social media. The random person or group who posted the meme may be less important than the quote or claim the meme makes. Your best strategy in this case might actually be to find a better source altogether, to look for other coverage that includes trusted reporting or analysis on that same claim. Rather than relying on the source that you initially found, you can trade up for a higher quality source. The point is that you’re not wedded to using that initial source.

 

SIFT icon for Trace Claims shows 3 dots narrowing down to one dot

Trace Claims, Quotes, and Media to the Original Context - Much of what we find on the internet has been stripped of context. Maybe there’s a video of a fight between two people with Person A as the aggressor. But what happened before that? What was clipped out of the video and what stayed in? Maybe there’s a picture that seems real but the caption could be misleading. Maybe a claim is made about a new medical treatment based on a research finding—but you’re not certain if the cited research paper actually said that. The people who re-report these stories either get things wrong by mistake, or, in some cases, they are intentionally misleading us.

In these cases you will want to trace the claim, quote, or media back to the source, so you can see it in its original context and get a sense of whether the version you saw was accurately presented. 

Source:

Butler, Walter, D. Aloha Sargent, and Kelsey Smith. "Information Sources: Bias," Introduction to College Research. OER. Pressbooks. 2020. https://introtocollegeresearch.pressbooks.com/chapter/the-sift-method/

Does Your Source Pass the C.R.A.A.P. Test?

Does Your Test Pass the C.R.A.A.P. Test ?
When you search for information, you're going to find lots of it . . . but is it good information? You will have to determine that for yourself, and the C.R.A.A.P. Test can help. The C.R.A.A.P Test is a list of questions to help you evaluate the information you find. Different criteria will be more or less important depending on your situation or need.

 

 


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