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Research 101 (older version): Evaluating sources for credibility

Evaluating for credibility

Determining credibility involves investigation, critical judgment, and reflection.

It is especially time-consuming when you are researching a topic that you have not yet read much about.

The more you read about a topic and come to know who trusted authors and institutions are within a field, the less time it will take you to assess credibility.

The following questions are meant to start you off with your assessment.

(1) AUTHORITY - all about who wrote it and if you trust them.

You need to determine whether the person who wrote something is qualified to write about the subject, and if you trust that person's authority.

Some questions to guide you as you look for information to help you make this decision:

WHO wrote this?

  • The “who” can be both an individual as well as an institution. For example:
  • individual: a human rights investigator documents rights abuses; institution: the non-profit human rights organization that employs her;
  • individual: a union leader writes an editorial on behalf of the institution of his union;
  • individual: a

WHERE was it published?

Examples: a newspaper, an academic journal, a website belonging to: a for-profit business, a university, a non-profit organization, a religious organization, or a government agency.

What kind of knowledge or experience do they have about this topic?

People gain authority in different ways. Individuals may have:

  • educational credentials: for example, an advanced degree earned after years of study
  • professional experience: for example being a scientist, lawyer, doctor, nurse, after undergoing training in your field
  • life experience - personal experiences qualify you to speak about what those experiences felt like and your own observations or strategies you may have used personally.
    • Some primary sources are documents that show what someone's personal experience was.
    • However, most of your research assignments will ask you to find writing that goes beyond individual experience to an analysis from a more systemic viewpoint, meaning not just what one person has experienced, but broader patterns, theories, events, and issues.

What is their point of view?

  • All writers have a point of view. Understanding where someone is coming from is part of understanding their writing.
  • If you don't know enough about the writer or his/her institution, look them up! Find out what they say about themselves and what others say about them as well.

Why did they write it? 

  • Every piece of writing takes time and effort (as you should know as students!) No one accidentally creates a website or writes a book or article. Understanding the author's purpose helps you understand the writing.

(2) CREDIBILITY OF ARGUMENT - Does what they're saying make sense?

They should back up any argument with evidence - where is that evidence from? Some questions to guide you as you assess the credibility of the argument:

If they’re trying to convince us of something, what kinds of arguments do they use?

  • are they appealing to our logic? If so, does their argument logically make sense?
  • are they appealing to our feelings? To an ethical or religious value that we might share with them?
  • do they show evidence, and if so where do they get it from?

Where did they get their information? (do they even tell us?)

  • References and citations are one way to tell us, quotes are another. If a source does not tell you where it got crucial information from but use that information to back up an argument, that is not a good sign.
  • Once you know where the author got his/her information, investigate that source a bit - is it from someone or some organization that is trustworthy?

Are they fair to opposing views?

  • Let’s say I disagree with Maria, and I’m trying to convince you she’s wrong and I’m right. I could either:
  • (A) describe what Maria’s argument is in a way that she thinks is fair, then give you reasons why my argument is better, or
  •  (B) describe what her argument in a way that she doesn't think is accurate,  then tell you reasons why I think my argument is better.

Which approach would be more convincing to you?



PBS video on science reporting

PBS video on "fake news" and confirmation bias

Watch out for conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories have become very common. They provide simplistic explanations, usually blaming one group of people acting with bad intentions -- "the truth They don't want you to know!" "the real reason They caused X problem".

Conspiracy theorists try to sound authentic and like to make videos that appeal to the emotions, but look closely at their claims and then compare to the de-bunking arguments of scientists, historians, engineers, and others who have serious and rigorous training.

Although it is tempting to believe conspiracy theories, because they can make you feel like you've discovered a hidden truth, they are more like rumors and urban myths that spread quickly from person to person but do not stand up to evidence.

Below is a short interview from National Public Radio (NPR) with a psychology professor on why people are drawn to conspiracy theories.