When looking at any new source of information (books, articles, websites, etc...) you should carefully evaluate it in terms of some basic criteria:
Information can quickly become obsolete. Supporting your thesis statement with facts that have been superseded by new research or recent events weakens your argument. Of course, not all assignments require the most current information; older materials can provide an historical or comprehensive understanding of your topic.
How do you know if the timeliness of your information is appropriate?
- When was the information published or last updated?
- Have newer articles been published on your topic?
- Are links or references to other sources up to date?
- Is your topic in an area that changes rapidly, like technology or popular culture?
Relevance is important because you are expected to support your ideas with pertinent information. A source detailing Einstein's marriage and family life would not be germane to his theories in physics.
How do you know if your source is relevant?
- Does the information answer your research question?
- Does the information meet the stated requirements of the assignment?
- Is the information too technical or too simplified for you to use?
- Does the source add something new to your knowledge of your topic?
Authority is important in judging the credibility of the author's assertions. In a trial regarding DNA evidence, a jury gives far more authority to what a genetics specialist has to say compared to someone off the street.
How do you know if an author is an authority on your topic?
- What are the author's credentials?
- Is the author affiliated with an educational institution or prominent organization?
- Can you find information about the author from reference books or the Internet?
- Do other books or articles cite the author?
Accuracy is important because errors and untruths distort a line of reasoning. When you present inaccurate information, you undermine your own credibility.
How do you know if your source is accurate?
- Are there statements you know to be false?
- Are there errors in spelling, punctuation, or grammar?
- Was the information reviewed by editors or subject experts before it was published?
- What citations or references support the author's claims?
- What do other people have to say about the topic?
- Is it clear who the authors are?
- What is the date of the material?
Purpose is important because books, articles, and Web pages exist to educate, entertain, or sell a product or point of view. Some sources may be frivolous or commercial in nature, providing inadequate, false, or biased information. Other sources are more ambiguous concerning their partiality. Varied points of view can be valid, as long as they are based upon good reasoning and careful use of evidence.
How do you determine the purpose of your source?
- Why did the author or publisher make this information available?
- Is there an obvious bias or prejudice?
- Are alternative points of view presented?
- Does the author omit important facts or data that might disprove a claim?
- Does the author use strong or emotional language?
- For Web pages, what is the domain or site?