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Library Services for Online Students: Evaluating Sources

This guide provides online students with recommended resources for library research and services.

Strategies for Evaluating Sources

What Determines Credibility

The credibility of a source depends on how and why it was created, its creator’s expertise and objectivity, the accuracy and completeness of the information presented, whether the information is current, and how the source will be used. Some sources may be very credible but still inappropriate choices for a research assignment, depending on the requirements of the assignment, while other sources, such as “fake news,” are never credible, no matter how convincing they are.

Evaluating Sources

The process of evaluating a source -- especially an internet source -- includes both fact-checking by examining other sources such as internet fact-checking tools and analyzing the source itself by examining its purpose, relevance, objectivity, verifiability, expertise, and newness.

The following strategies* will help you use other sources and tools to fact-check a source:

Check for previous work.
Find the original source.
  • Who originally published the information and why? Find the original source of the information before evaluating it.
Read laterally.
  • What do other sources say about this publication and author? What a source says about itself may not be trustworthy.
Circle back.
  • How can you revise your search to yield better results? Use what you’ve learned to start over with new search terms.
Check your own emotions.
  • We are more likely to believe something that stirs strong emotions. Be aware of your own biases as you fact-check.

The following questions will help you think critically as you examine a particular source:

Purpose: How and why the source was created.
  • Why does this information exist, why is it in this form (book, article, website, etc.), and who is the intended audience? Is the purpose clear?
Relevance: The value of the source for your needs.
  • How useful is this source in answering your question, supporting your argument, or adding to your knowledge? Is the type and content of the source appropriate for your assignment?
Objectivity: The reasonableness and completeness of the information.
  • How thorough and balanced is this source? Does it present fact or opinion? How well do its creators acknowledge their point of view, represent other points of view fully, and critique them professionally?
Verifiability: The accuracy and truthfulness of the information.
  • How well do the creators of this source support their information with factual evidence, identify and cite their sources, and accurately represent information from other sources?  Can you find the original source(s) of the information or verify facts in other sources? What do experts say about the topic?
Expertise: The authority of the authors and the source. 
  • Who created this source and what education and/or professional or personal experience makes them authorities on the topic? How was the source reviewed before publication? Do other experts cite this source or otherwise acknowledge the authority of its creators?
Newness: The age of the information.
  • Does your topic require current information? How up-to-date is this source and the information within it? 

*These strategies come from Mike Caulfield’s free online book, Web Literacy For Student Fact-Checkers (2017), which provides detailed fact-checking instructions, including how to: determine the reputation of a scientific journal; figure out the original source of viral content; figure out who paid for a website; see if a tweet was sent by an imposter; find web pages that have been deleted; verify quotes from printed books; and more.

P.R.O.V.E.N. Source Evaluation by Ellen Carey (last updated 1/14/2020) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Download the document below to save or print a copy of the P.R.O.V.E.N. Source Evaluation Process:

Reviewing Sources for Credibility

The following video describes how to evaluate sources using five criteria: authority, accuracy, currency, relevance, and objectivity (from off campus you will need to log in using your Pipeline username and password):