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First-Year Seminar: MODULE #3: Evaluating Sources

Overview

When you complete this module, you should be able to apply a specific set of questions to a given source in order to determine whether it is appropriate for use in an academic research project.

Module #3: Evaluating Sources

 

Script for Module #3:

Welcome to the module for evaluating sources. When you complete this module, you should be able to apply a specific set of questions to a given source in order to determine whether it is appropriate for use in an academic research project.

When trying to determine both the quality and the relevance of a source for your research project, it helps to think of the journalistic questions “what, who, where, when, why, and how.” As you examine a possible source, you’ll want to answer all these questions not just in terms of whether the source belongs in an academic paper or project but whether it belongs in a project on your particular topic. Additionally, you’ll want to consider how it might be best to use that source in the context of your project.

What?
There are many different types of sources that you will encounter as you research a topic. Often, a source’s type can tell you a lot about what that source contains before you even read it. 

Ask yourself these questions: What kind of source is it? An article in a web magazine or newsletter, for example? Is it a blog entry? A podcast or a video? Maybe it’s a review of a book or a video? Or perhaps a newspaper article or merely an infographic? Keep in mind, too, that government agencies often make publicly-funded reports and statistics available online for free. Ask yourself what information this type of source is likely to contain that you might use for your project.

Who?
Knowing who’s written a source is vital. You want to make sure that the author has the education and/or experience to speak authoritatively about the topic on which the source focuses. 

Ask yourself: Who’s the author? Can you find them on Google? What expertise do they bring to the table according to their degrees, publications, or professional experience and certifications? Are their credentials related to the field that your topic addresses? What might be some of their possible biases? More simply, why should we listen to them? Keep in mind, as well, that an author may be an organization or a group as opposed to one or more people.

Where?
Knowing who has agreed to publish a source tells you a lot about a source’s perspective on a topic. Looking at the About section of an organization’s website will help you find out a lot about its values and motivations. These values generally determine which sources they make available on their website or in their publications. Similarly, looking at the board of directors associated with an outlet can also tell you what that outlet is interested in promoting.

Ask yourself: Where is your source published? Is it on an individual’s personal website or blog? An online magazine or newsletter site? Is it in a free online encyclopedia or study guide? Or maybe it’s located on a government agency or private nonprofit website. Knowing who’s providing you with free access to this information can help you judge its appropriateness for your project. Finally, If there’s advertising on the site, is it related to the content of your source or does it seem irrelevant or provocative, like the ad has been placed by a third party that’s getting paid by the number of clicks?

When?
Having the most up-to-date information may not always be necessary depending on what your topic is. But knowing how recent the information in a source is can help you observe how ideas and data on the subject have changed over time. 

Ask yourself: When was the source published? On the web, this can be hard to tell. Look near the source’s title or byline for the date. Copyright dates at the bottom of a web page generally apply to the entire site itself rather than articles found on it. Finally, don’t confuse the dates of reader comments for a source’s publication date. If you still can’t find a date, use context clues to guess at a possible time frame for the source. Be sure to also consider how crucial it is to your topic that you use up-to-the-minute information as opposed to merely recent information. If a source feels like it’s too old, you can always check with your professor. 

Why?
Figuring out the purpose behind a source can involve some guesswork and it may require at least skimming the source. But understanding why someone has written or produced something helps you understand that it may be framing the topic in a certain way for a specific reason. If a source is trying to sell a product, for example, you’ll know that it’s essentially a commercial that’s aimed at getting you to buy something rather than to inform you about your topic. 

Ask yourself: Why is the source being published? Is it a report summarizing a government-funded or nonprofit study? Is it an article giving consumers advice about purchases they’re making? Maybe it’s one professional writing to other professionals about an issue in their shared field. Or it could be an editorial written by someone who wants to convince you that their theory, viewpoint, or interpretation is the most valid one. Knowing what motivates an author –  regardless of whether it’s hidden or obvious – helps you decide whether a source belongs in your research or not. 

How¹? (Part I)
Ask yourself how the source is supported. Does your author rely on other sources or other people’s ideas to make their point? Do they cite studies, data, theories, facts, accounts, or experiences from other people? For this one, you’ll have to skim your source a bit since it can be difficult to see where sources are being cited with just a glance. Blogs and newspaper articles often simply give hyperlinks to their sources. A list of references or works cited, when it’s there, can often help you find additional sources.

How²? (Part II)
The second part of the how question is the part where you ask yourself how you might use the source in your project. Consider how it could be of use in getting your message or argument across. Does it contain statistical information? Important background information? A summary of two opposing viewpoints? A definition of key terms? Or an illustration of a key problem or principle? What can it help you do in your project or paper?

Now that you’re familiar with the journalistic approach to evaluating sources, give it a try yourself. Click on the link in Step 1 below and read the article to which the link takes you. Then, click on the link in Step 2 to answer quiz questions to see how thoroughly you can evaluate the source. If you’d like more practice with source evaluation, the final slide in this module has an additional assignment for more in-depth discussion.

Thanks for watching, and happy researching!  
 

Quiz: Evaluating Sources

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