Finding Credible Sources

Evaluating Information. Authored by: Sarah Stone Watt, Ph.D.. Provided by: Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA. Located athttp://publicspeakingproject.org/psvirtualtext.htmlProject: Public Speaking Project. LicenseCC BY-NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives

Evaluating Information

The popular online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, is a great resource for general information. It is a good place to start in order to determine search terms and potentially relevant strains of thought on a given topic. However, it is not the most credible source to cite in your speech. Since anyone can update the site at any time, information may be entirely inaccurate. When using Wikipedia, look for source citations and follow the links to original source material.

The large amount of information available in your library and on the Internet can seem overwhelming. Narrow your support by evaluating the quality and credibility of each source. To determine the quality of a source, look to see whether the information provided seems comprehensive. To determine whether or not the information is comprehensive, check to see that it thoroughly covers the issue, considers competing perspectives, and cites the sources where supporting material came from.

First, check to see that your source not only discusses issues that pertain to your topic, but thoroughly explains the reasoning behind the claims it offers. Often you will already be familiar with the topic, but you will require the addition of strong reasoning to properly support your ideas. If your source cannot provide strong reasoning, it is not the best quality source. Second, determine whether the source considers competing perspectives. Debate strategists know that evidence can be found for multiple perspectives on any issue. If your source does not also recognize and consider opposing arguments, it is not the best quality source. Third, check to see that your source offers supporting data and or if it includes non-credible citations, it is not the best quality source. It is fine to use a source that is weak in one of these areas if you still find it compelling, but know that you may need to back it up with additional credible information. If the source is weak in multiple areas, do your best to avoid using it so that it does not weaken your speech.

In addition to the quality, you should examine source credibility. When evaluating credibility, focus on the sources’ qualifications, the parity of their message with similar sources, and their biases. One of the most important elements of credibility is qualification. Sometimes qualifications will be linked to a person’s profession. For example, if you are talking about earthquakes, you might want the expertise of a seismologist who studies earthquake waves and their effects. However, professional expertise is not the only type of credibility. If you want to discuss the feeling of experiencing a major earthquake, testimony from a survivor may be more credible than testimony from a scientist who studied the event but did not experience it. When examining credibility, check to see that the person has the training or experience appropriate to the type of information they offer. Next, check to see whether the information in your chosen source aligns with information in other sources on the issue. If your source is the only one that offers a particular perspective, and no other source corroborates that perspective, it is less likely to be credible.

I used to sleep nude – until the earthquake. – Alyssa Milano

Additionally, check for bias. All sources have bias, meaning they all come from a particular perspective. You must check to see whether the perspective of the source matches your own, and whether the perspective overwhelms the ability to offer reliable information on an issue. Also check to see whether the source is affiliated with organizations that are known to hold a particularly strong opinion concerning the issue they are speaking to.

kid on bus yawning
“Untitled” by Dmitry Ryzhkov. CC-BY-NC-SA

In your speech, make reference to the quality and credibility of your sources. Identifying the qualifications for a source, or explaining that their ideas have been used by many other credible sources, will enhance the strength of your speech. For example, if you are giving a speech about the benefits of sleep, citing a renowned sleep expert will strengthen your argument. If you can then explain that this person’s work has been repeatedly tested and affirmed by later studies, your argument will appear even stronger. On the other hand, if you simply offer the name of your source without any explanation of who that person is, or why they ought to be believed, your argument is suspect. To offer this kind of information without disrupting the flow of your speech, you might say something like,

Mary Carskadon, Director of the Chronobiology/Sleep Research Laboratory at Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island, and Professor at the Brown University School of Medicine, explains that there are several advantages to increased amounts of sleep….Her work is supported by other researchers, like Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom at the University of Minnesota whose study demonstrated that delaying school start times increased student sleep and their performance.[1]

This sample citation bolsters credibility by offering qualifications, and identifies multiple experts who agree on this issue. You may be tempted to stop once you have found one source that supports your idea, but continuing to research and comparing the information in each source will help you better support your ideas. It will also prevent you from overlooking contradictory evidence that you need to be able to address.


  1. National Sleep Foundation. (2011). School start time and sleep. Retrieved from: http://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/school-start-time-and-sleep 

Evaluating Web Sources

Kris Barton & Barbara G. Tucker, Florida State University & University of Georgia via GALILEO Open Learning Materials

When asked to research for an academic project, most students are going to start by going to Google.  There is a LOT of information available online – how do you know if your information is credible or not?

First, let’s define the difference between Primary and Secondary sources. You may hear sources described as either “primary” or “secondary,” and understanding this distinction can help you assess what types of information are useful for your various needs.

primary source is one that is original and first-hand. This has different meanings depending on the disciplinary context, but generally refers to the product of someone’s original work, such as the results of a scientist’s study, or an author’s novel. You may access published  primary sources in introductory college courses like this one, and you will definitely do so as you progress in your discipline. Keep in mind that primary sources are generally factual rather than analysis or interpretation, although not in all cases.

In your research, you more frequently use secondary sources, which are articles, books, and websites that involve analysis or interpretation of primary sources. While a scientific study would be a primary source, a magazine article about the findings of that study would be considered a secondary source.

Whether you use a primary or a secondary source depends on our purpose, topic, audience, and context. If you engage in undergraduate research in your junior or senior year and present at a conference, you will be expected to have some primary research. However, for most of your college work, you will be looking for reliable secondary sources. One way to assess the quality of a secondary source is to look at its references or bibliography. A reliable source will cite other sources to support its claims. Likewise, a well-researched speech will provide support for its argument by using evidence obtained from reliable sources.

Most researchers begin their work by evaluating the current information that exists on their topic. They may look at a combination of primary and secondary sources during this process. Their goal is to find out what is currently known about a topic and where the research may be headed. Students completing a research-based assignment will begin much the same way.

Finding information online is relatively simple, so the challenge researchers face is determining what information is useful and whether it’s credible. A quick assessment is easy, and here are a few questions to guide you:

  • Is the information current relative to your needs? Information in a rapidly-changing field like science or medicine can quickly become outdated. Even social science research is time-sensitive. Laws and demographics can change quickly, and you’ll want to be sure the information you’re using is up-to-date.
  • Does the information address your topic? You may not find any single source that directly addresses all facets of your approach to a topic. You can, however, use information from multiple sources to support different parts of your work.
  • Who is the source of information? The advice of an expert in a subject may be more valuable than the opinion of a layperson. On the other hand, a salesperson may know a lot about their product, but their perspective is informed by their goal of making a sale. With this in mind, you may ask yourself why was this information created?

The trustworthiness of information you find on the Internet can be harder yet to discern. While a source may have a current date listed, seem to offer relevant information, and claim to be an expert, it’s important to go beyond the information they give about themselves and verify that you can believe that they are honestly representing themselves and the information they offer.

Some advice on how to effectively evaluate online information is offered by Washington State University Professor Michael Caulfield, who suggests doing the following:

  • Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research. Dubious claims can quickly be debunked with a Google search. Some websites that are dedicated to fact-checking include FactCheck.org, Politifact, and Snopes. The first two are focused on political claims, while the third addresses stories from various sources.
  • Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information. You can achieve this by identifying where the information originated. If an article is describing a scientific study, tracking down the original study may reveal that its significant findings weren’t accurately represented.
  • Read laterally: Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network. While some sources may claim to be experts in their subject areas, it may turn out that other experts in the field consider that source questionable.
  • Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions. If you feel that you are overwhelmed by the amount of information, or can’t tell if sources are actually still relevant to your topic, it might be time to start over, or seek assistance.

There are many “tests” or “sets of criteria” that you can find in textbooks and on websites for deciding if a website is reliable. Words and concepts such as currency, authority, accessing only certain domain names (.org or .edu as opposed to .com), and inclusion of a bibliography or references section are common. Another is writing style: does the writing style show bias (such as use of name-calling or loaded language) or poor grammar and editing? These are all good signs that your site may have an agenda beyond fair presentation of facts. However, your site may seem to pass muster on first sight but not really provide what you need. That is why we have included the advice from Dr. Caulfield here. For more information on this topic, check out:

https://hapgood.us/2017/03/04/how-news-literacy-gets-the-web-wrong/

https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Teach-Information/243973

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3048994

One common source that many students have questions about using is Wikipedia. Most of us use Wikipedia or similar sites to look up the answers to pressing questions such as “Was Val Kilmer in the film Willow?” or “When is the next solar eclipse?” However, it is unlikely that your instructor will be satisfied with your using evidence from Wikipedia (or other Wiki-type sites).

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Wikipedia is, like a dictionary, a basic reference source. Like a printed encyclopedia, it is used for basic or general information about a topic, but this means that it is not suitable for serious college-level research.  Wikipedia is always a secondary source.  Additionally, because anyone on Wikipedia (or any Wiki site) can update information, there is no guarantee that what you read will be up-to-date or correct. While Wikipedia and its editors make every effort to maintain the accuracy of entries, with millions of pages on the site, that isn’t always possible. Sometimes Wikipedia pages display inaccurate information, including hoax articles or prank edits. These are typically corrected quickly by editors who notice a change has been made and fact-check to verify whether the information is true.

When it comes down to it, Wikipedia is a good place to go to obtain basic information or general knowledge about your subject. You can use the references at the bottom of the page (if there are any) to look for information elsewhere. But saying to an audience, “my source for the information in this speech is Wikipedia” will probably do little to convince your audience that you are knowledgeable and have done adequate research for the speech.

The video below from describes the process of Lateral Reading and how that can help you fact-check the credibility of your website instead of relying on superficial cues:

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

SPC-101 Kirkwood by emcworthy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book