Research & Referencing
This page will give you advice when it comes to evaluating the sources that you find on the internet. It can often be difficult to work out whether or not a source you find is credibly, and reliable.
Is this a Hoax? (TBUpdated)
Source Evaluation Grid
Guide to Evaluating Sources
The following diagram is an excellent starting point for evaluating sources that you find while researching on the internet.
The above diagram is a guide to support you in evaluating your resources when researching. It is recommended to develop a tool that helps you make decisions about which sources are giving you the best information. One example is to create a table like the one below.
e.g. Smith, B, “Egyptian History”
Evidence based research with clear links to primary sources
B. Smith is a Prof. of Egyptology at the University of Oxford
The book was produced in 2018.
Based on the author’s perspective, however, include citations to other experts
Contains detailed information about Egyptian tombs
The book is published to be used as a high school resource.
If you would like to use this table there is a link to a file that you can use below.
trustworthy source, author’s credentials, evidence of quality control, known or respected authority, organizational support. Goal: an authoritative source, a source that supplies some good evidence that allows you to trust it.
up to date, factual, detailed, exact, comprehensive, audience and purpose reflect intentions of completeness and accuracy. Goal: a source that is correct today (not yesterday), a source that gives the whole truth.
fair, balanced, objective, reasoned, no conflict of interest, absence of fallacies or slanted tone. Goal: a source that engages the subject thoughtfully and reasonably, concerned with the truth.
listed sources, contact information, available corroboration, claims supported, documentation supplied. Goal: a source that provides convincing evidence for the claims made, a source you can triangulate (find at least two other sources that support it).
The information on this site on CARS has been adapted from the excellent work bt Robert Harris at Virtual Salt. The original information can be found here
When making decisions, we should always aim to ensure that we are using information which us credible. If you read an article saying that the area where you live will experience a major natural disaster or other catastrophe, it is important that you should know whether or not to believe the information.
Some questions you might ask would include: What about this source makes it believable (or not)? How does this source know this information? Why should I believe this source over another? As you can see, the key to credibility is the question of trust.
There are several tests you can apply to a source to help you judge how credible and useful it will be:
- The author or source of the information should show some evidence of being knowledgeable, reliable, and truthful. Here are some clues:
- Author's education, training, and/or experience in a field relevant to the information. Look for biographical information, the author's title or position of employment
- Author provides contact information (email or snail mail address, phone number)
- Organisational authorship from a known and respected organisation (corporate, governmental, or non-profit)
- Author's reputation or standing among peers.
- Author's position (job function, title)
Note: Mere fame is not an indicator of credibility. A famous actor or athlete presenting arguments about, say, the ozone layer, should be considered an ordinary layman unless evidence is presented that the person has attained expertise in the area.
Evidence of Quality Control
Most scholarly journal articles pass through a peer review process, whereby several readers must examine and approve content before it is published. Statements issued in the name of an organisation have almost always been seen and approved by several people.
Evidence of quality control of Internet material includes these items:
- Information presented on organisational web sites
- On-line journals that use refereeing (peer review) by editors or others
- Postings of information taken from books or journals that have a quality control process
Note: Appearances can be deceiving. Don't assume that a great-looking Web site is automatically credible. Very professional and sophisticated Web page templates are available for a few dollars, so that anyone and his pet skunk can put up a site that looks expensive and authoritative. Good looks are not evidence of credibility.
Metainformation is information about information. As the challenges produced by the increasing quantity of information continue, access to high quality metainformation will become increasingly important. Metainformation can take many forms, but there are two basic types, summary and evaluative.
Summary metainformation includes all the shortened forms of information, such as abstracts, content summaries, or even tables of contents. This type of metainformation gives us a quick glance at what a work is about and allows us to consider many different sources without having to go through them completely.
Evaluative metainformation includes all the types that provide some judgment or analysis of content. This type includes recommendations, ratings, reviews, and commentaries. Even the search results order of pages from a search engine like Google represents a type of evaluative metainformation, since pages are ranked in part by the number of other pages linked to them (and hence "voting" for them in some sense).
And, of course, these two types can be combined, resulting in the best form of metainformation, providing us with a quick overview and some evaluation of the value. An example would be a World Wide Web yellow pages or directory which describes each selected site and provides evaluations of its content.
Tip: If you are thinking about using a printed book in your research paper, Google the book title with the word "review" appended and read what others think of the book.
Indicators of Lack of Credibility
You can sometimes tell by the tone, style, or competence of the writing whether or not the information is suspect. Here are a few clues:
- Lack of Quality Control
- Negative Metainformation. If all the reviews are critical, be careful.
- Bad grammar or misspelled words. Most educated people use grammar fairly well and check their work for spelling errors.
- Emotional earnestness accompanied by exaggeration or absolutes. Even in very controversial areas we expect reasons, data, and emotional restraint. us.
The goal of the accuracy test is to assure that the information is actually correct:
- up to date,
- exact, and
For example, even though a very credible writer said something that was correct twenty years ago, it may not be correct today
Some work is timeless, like the classic novels and stories, or like the thought provoking philosophical work of Aristotle and Plato. Other work has a limited useful life because of advances in the discipline and some work is outdated very quickly. You must therefore be careful to note when the information you find was created, and then decide whether it is still of value. You may need information within the past ten years, five years, or even two weeks. But old is not necessarily bad: some older information provides insight into how different topics were viewed in different contexts.
An important idea connected with timeliness is the dynamic, fluid nature of information and the fact that we must remember to check and re-check our data from time to time, and realise that we will always need to update our facts.
Note: Many Web pages display today's date automatically, regardless of when the content on the page was created. If you see today's date on a page other than from a news site, be extra careful.
Any source that presents conclusions or that claims give a full and rounded story, should reflect the intentions of completeness and accuracy. In other words, the information should be comprehensive. Some writers argue that researchers should be sure that they have "complete" information before making a decision or that information must be complete. But with the advent of the information age, such a goal is impossible, if by "complete" we mean all possible information. No one can read 20,000 articles on the same subject before coming to a conclusion or making a decision. And no single piece of information will offer the truly complete story--that's why we rely on more than one source. On the other hand, an information source that deliberately leaves out important facts, qualifications, consequences, or alternatives may be misleading or even intentionally deceptive.
Tip: Enter your topic into the search box of Google or another search engine and append one of the following words or phrases: controversy, dispute, disagreement, alternate views, debate, arguments for and against. The results will give you an indication about how comprehensive your source is and whether it has omitted some important details.
Audience and Purpose
For whom is this source intended and for what purpose? If, for example, you find an article, "How Plants Grow," and children are the intended audience, then the material may be too simplified for your Year 12 biology paper. More important to the evaluation of information is the purpose for which the information was created. For example, an article titled, "Should You Buy or Lease a Car?" might have been written with the purpose of being an objective analysis, but it may instead have been written with the intention of persuading you that leasing a car is better than buying. In the latter case, the information will most likely be biased or distorted. Such information is not useless, but the bias must be taken into consideration when interpreting and using the information. Be sure, then, that the intended audience and purpose of the article are appropriate to your requirements or at least clearly in evidence so that you may take them into account. Information pretending to objectivity but possessing a hidden agenda of persuasion or a hidden bias is among the most common kind of information in our culture.
Indicators of a Lack of Accuracy
In addition to an obvious tone or style that reveals a carelessness with detail or accuracy, there are several indicators that may mean the source is inaccurate, either in whole or in part:
- No date on the document
- Vague or sweeping generalisations
- Old date on information known to change rapidly
- Very one sided view that does not acknowledge opposing views or respond to them
The test of reasonableness involves examining the information for fairness, objectivity, moderateness, and consistency.
Fairness includes offering a balanced, reasoned argument, not selected or slanted. Even ideas or claims made by the source's opponents should be presented in an accurate manner. A good information source will also possess a calm, reasoned tone, arguing or presenting material thoughtfully and without attempting to get you emotionally worked up. Pay attention to the tone and be cautious of highly emotional writing.
There is no such thing as pure objectivity, but a good writer should be able to control his or her biases. Be on the lookout for slanted, biased, politically distorted work.
One of the biggest hindrances to objectivity is conflict of interest. Sometimes an information source will benefit in some way (usually financially, but sometimes politically or even emotionally or psychologically) if that source can get you to accept certain information. For example, many sites that sell "natural" products (cosmetics, vitamins, clothes) often criticise their competitors for selling bad, unhealthy or dangerous products. The criticism may be just, but because the messenger will gain financially if you believe the message, you should be very careful--and check somewhere else before spending money or believing the tale.
Moderateness is a test of the information against how the world really is. Use your knowledge and experience to ask if the information is really likely, possible, or probable. Most truths are ordinary. If a claim being made is surprising or hard to believe, use caution and demand more evidence than you might require for a lesser claim. Claims that seem to run against established natural laws also require more evidence. In other words, do a reality check. Is the information believable? Does it make sense? Or do the claims lack face validity?
The consistency test simply requires that the argument or information does not contradict itself. Sometimes when people spin falsehoods or distort the truth, inconsistencies or even contradictions show up. These are evidence of unreasonableness.
A writer's view of the world (political, economic, religious and philosophical) often influences his or her writing profoundly, from the subjects chosen to the slant, the issues raised, issues ignored, fairness to opponents, kinds of examples, and so forth. World view can be an evaluative test because some world views in some people cause quite a distortion in their view of reality or their world view permits them to fabricate evidence or falsify the positions of others.
Do note, however, that everyone, including you and I, has a worldview through which we interpret reality and find meaning in events. Many writers can and do control the biases that accompany their world view, so simply discovering a writer's world view does not automatically disqualify the information or even render it suspect.
Indicators of a Lack of Reasonableness
Writers who put themselves in the way of the argument, either emotionally or because of self-interest, often reveal their lack of reasonableness. Here are some clues to a lack of reasonableness:
- Intemperate tone or language
- Sweeping statements of excessive significance
- Conflict of Interest
The area of support is concerned with the source and corroboration of the information. Much information, especially statistics and claims of fact, comes from other sources. Citing sources strengthens the credibility of the information.
Source Documentation or Bibliography
When you wonder if the source you are reading is reliable, a powerful question to ask is, "Where did this information come from?" This is the "provenance" question, there ‘where did it come from question?’. Some provenance questions you might ask are:
- What sources did the information creator use?
- Are the sources listed?
- Is there a bibliography or other documentation?
- Does the author provide contact information in case you wish to discuss an issue or request further clarification?
- What kind of support for the information is given?
- How does the writer know this?
- It is especially important for statistics to be documented. Otherwise, someone may be just making up numbers.
See if other sources support this source. Corroboration or confirmability is an important test of truth. And even in areas of judgment or opinion, if an argument is sound, there will probably be a number of people who adhere to it or who are in some general agreement with parts of it. Whether you're looking for a fact (like the lyrics to a song or the date of an event), an opinion (like whether paper or plastic is the more environmentally friendly choice), or some advice (like how to grow bromeliads), it is a good idea to triangulate your findings: that is, find at least three sources that agree. If the sources do not agree, do further research to find out the range of opinion or disagreement before you draw your conclusions.
Corroboration is especially important when you find dramatic or surprising information (information failing the moderateness test, above). For example, the claim that a commonly used food additive is harmful should be viewed with scepticism until it can be confirmed (or rebutted) by further research. The claim may be true, but it seems unlikely that both government and consumer organisations would let the additive go unchallenged if indeed it were harmful.
While the test of corroboration involves finding out whether other sources contain the same new information as the source being evaluated, the test of external consistency compares what is familiar in the new source with what is familiar in other sources. That is, information is usually a mixture of old and new, some things you already know and some things you do not. The test of external consistency asks, Where this source discusses facts or ideas I already know something about, does the source agree, or does it conflict, exaggerate, or distort? The reasoning is that if a source is faulty where it discusses something you already know, it is likely to be faulty in areas where you do not yet know, and you should therefore be cautious and sceptical about trusting it.
Indicators of a Lack of Support
As you can readily guess, the lack of supporting evidence provides the best indication that there is indeed no available support. Be careful, then, when a source shows problems like these:
- Numbers or statistics presented without an identified source for them
- Absence of source documentation when the discussion clearly needs such documentation
- You cannot find any other sources that present the same information or acknowledge that the same information exists