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Student Resources: Evaluating Sources

Why Evaluate?

Anyone can publish information on the Internet -- which means it's a reader's responsibility to determine whether the information they've found is both reliable (worthy of trust) and valuable (useful for their needs).

When you have to make an important personal life decision, you don't believe and act on the first piece of advice that someone gives you -- especially if that person isn't someone you know and trust. You should handle your information needs with the same caution and skepticism.

When you encounter an idea that someone has put out into the world, always ask yourself: should I believe and act on this?

Key Strategies

Don't trust a source based solely on the site's appearance. It's easy to make a site look professional.

Don't automatically trust a .org site; don't automatically distrust a .com site. It's easier than you think to get a .org domain. And many credible sources operate under a for-profit model.

Don't rush your research. Fact-checking takes a little extra time; there's no way around that. Getting credible sources will require a minor amount of legwork.

Critical Questions

When you find something on the Web, always ask yourself :

  • Why should I believe what this source is telling me? Does the central argument make sense in itself? How many flaws can you identify in it?
  • Is this author correctly informed? Are they drawing their information from a credible place? Do they really understand this topic?
  • Is there something they're not telling me about this topic? Is there another logical perspective that's not being discussed?
  • Who benefits from my believing the argument? Is there bias at work? Does someone involved profit from my agreement?

Answering these questions won't always lead you to a guaranteed, concrete judgment about the source -- but you will likely be on the path to a critical evaluation.


Caufield's Four Moves

In his book, Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers, Michael Caufield lists four "moves" that students should master to effectively evaluate sources of information.

  1. Check for previous work. (Has someone already investigated the source and critiqued it?)
  2. Go upstream to the source. (Can you find the original source of information being discussed?)
  3. Read laterally. (Can you find others discussing this same source information?)
  4. Circle back. (Hit a dead end? Start over in a new direction.)