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Research skills: finding and evaluating information for essays and theses: Evaluating information sources

This guide gives an outline of the key skills needed for researching a subject, from identifying and developing a topic to finding and evaluating information for essays and theses. It also includes advice on writing your essay, assignment or thesis.

Evaluating your sources

It is important to ensure that the sources that you use are reliable and the information you use is truthful and accurate. But evaluating your information sources is not just limited to accuracy or truthfulness. You also need to ensure that the sources you use are relevant and add something worthwhile to your work and are not out of date and possibly superseded by more recent research.

The publisher needs to be considered also, particularly in terms of online material where an individual author may not be easily identifiable. You need to ask is the author or publisher independent and objective, or do they possibly represent a particular viewpoint, organisation or industry that may compromise their independence. 

There are a number of detailed web pages referenced elsewhere on this page on the subject of evaluating sources of information, but the main points to consider are:

  • AUTHOR      -  Who is the author? Are they reliable? Do they have recognised expertise or knowledge of the subject? Have they published other academic articles, or books on the subject? 
  • ACCURACY -  Is the information correct, complete and truthful?
  • CURRENCY -  Is the information up-to-date? This can be particularly important in scientific research areas, but will be relevant to almost all areas of academic research.
  • OBJECTIVE -   Can the author and the publisher be considered totally objective and independent?
  • RELEVANCE - Is the information relevant to your research work?

Evaluating online resources

Evaluating information found online on the Internet can present particular challenges to students, according to this article from the Stanford Graduate School of Education: Stanford researchers find students have trouble judging the credibility of information online


The CRAAP test for evaluating resources

Can you trust your source: Fake News, Propaganda, Bias, Misinformation and Disinformation

Just like a good journalist will ensure that all their sources are reliable, accurate and verifiable before publishing a story, in academic writing the same general principles must apply. In fact, it is even more important that you check and record your sources as you will not be able to retract your story at a later date and apologise like a newspaper journalist can, if your sources are incorrect. Your essay or assignment will be marked to a large extent according to how you support your arguments through the sources you refer to or cite. In a worst case scenario, if the research you rely on is poor or unreliable, you may fail your assignment or even be accused of plagiarism if you do not record your sources correctly.

The concept of Fake News has come to the fore during the 2016 US Presidential election. However, as outlined in this article from the Merriam Webster website, the use of publishing fake or false news aimed at damaging a person politically has been around for a long time. 

While the idea of incorrect, unreliable, untrue or false information in the academic writing context is somewhat different, the same general principles do still apply. You must ensure that the sources you use are reliable and that what they say is true and that they are objective.

There are various ways in which people or organisations will try to influence an argument in their favour. This might be through using misinformation, disinformation, propaganda or bias.

Propaganda is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as 'the spreading of ideas, information, or rumour for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person'.

Sometimes this is easy to spot, but it can also be very subtle at times. For example: a newspaper may have a certain political bias; the views of an Employers' Organisation and a Union Group representing workers on the issue of minimum wage legislation are likely to be very different. It is highly probable that neither would be entirely objective sources on minimum wage legislation: you would need to consider this when using any reports or findings that they might publish on this issue.

Therefore it is important that you think carefully about each source that you use. This webpage from The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University discusses these issues -  misinformation, disinformation and propaganda - in more detail.

The following sites offer advice on how to avoid untrustworthy sources:


Evaluating Sources for Credibility - a video from NCSU

Evaluatintg Sources - a brief video from Columbus State Library