Unit 3: How to Evaluate Sources
The research process models we explored in Unit 2 discussed how to find sources. Now, we need to evaluate which sources are correct and valuable and which are not. Whether you have discovered an online source or an artifact at your local library, the CRAAP model of source assessment will help you determine whether it is credible and usable. This clever acronym refers to the test you should use for your source evaluation process. It will help you sort your information into quality sources you can use and materials you should discard. In this unit, we focus on some broad principles to guide your source assessment.
In Unit 4, we will look at some additional guidance for checking online sources, which have some unique features that can help you. First, let's discuss some general research evaluation principles that pertain to both online and printed sources.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 3 hours.
3.1: Creating an Evaluation Framework
With the internet and our smartphones, we have access to more information at our fingertips than most of our ancestors had available during their entire lives! Finding information is not our primary challenge. Instead, we are tasked with separating facts, data, and knowledge from misinformation (information that is wrong) and disinformation (information that is intentionally false or misleading).
3.2: CRAAP – Currency or Timeliness
The first criteria of the CRAAP model is to ensure the currency or timeliness of your resource. Is it topical? When was the information posted or published? Does your topic require your information to be current? For example, if you are writing about the sciences or current events, your information needs to be timely. Anything older than 5–10 years is probably out-of-date. However, currency may be less relevant if you are looking for a historical resource.
3.3: CRAAP – Relevance
Next, we need to explore the criteria of relevance. Is the information you found tied to or related to your topic? Who is the intended audience? Was it created for other scholars? Was it made for the general public? News sites are good, but they may not be as relevant for scholarly research.
A periodical is a scholarly journal, magazine, or newspaper. For most college-based and professional research, you should concentrate on academic journals. Their ethos relies heavily on being peer-reviewed, which means that other scholars from similar fields have reviewed the articles.
Most magazines and newspapers lack this type of oversight. General editors, rather than content specialists, approve their work. Magazine and newspaper writers follow journalistic principles, such as the SPJ Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists.
3.4: CRAAP – Authority
As we noted in our discussion of ethos, the author's qualifications are incredibly important during your source evaluation. Does the author have a good reputation as a quality scholar? Do they have the ability to observe? Ideally, you want to learn from the person who conducted the study rather than someone who wrote about it. Do they have expertise in the area? For example, did they earn an academic degree that is relevant to your research? Is the author neutral, or do they appear to be trying to convince or persuade you to believe something?
Be sure to search the internet for information about the author's academic and professional background. You are looking for the author's credentials: Does the author hold a position at a college, university, or research institute? Do they have personal ethos? You may also want to examine the reputation of the place where they work. Note that we will look at the "sponsoring organization" and other online-specific tips for evaluating online sources in Unit 4.
3.5: CRAAP – Accuracy
Accuracy refers to whether your information is correct, supported by evidence, and not simply the author's opinion. Has a third party, such as a subject-matter expert, peer-reviewed or fact-checked the information? Can you verify the information with a third source?
The location where you find a print source – a book, magazine, journal, or newspaper – speaks a lot about its credibility. For example, if you find a print source in a college library, there is a good chance the librarian chose to include it in the college's collection as an academic resource.
However, do not make too many assumptions, since you do not know the librarian's intent. Perhaps the book's author makes unbelievable claims but provides interesting historical context, excellent photography, or compelling design material. Similarly, a professor who recommends a source has probably reviewed it for credibility, but you should always make your own determination. Perhaps, two resources have the same title, or a different author wrote the revised version. Be sure to decide whether the resource you want to use or refer to is suitable for your purposes.
3.6: CRAAP – Purpose
Purpose refers to why the author wrote the resource you are evaluating. If you are writing a research paper, the author's purpose should have been to share their research findings or inform their reader neutrally. Their primary goal should not have been to sell you something, convince you to vote in a certain way, change your opinion, profit a company, or persuade you to adopt a specific idea or belief. Ask yourself whether the author is trying to move you to believe something without providing any supporting evidence. Do they have a bias?
Objectivity is an important consideration when evaluating a source. In this context, objectivity does not refer to whether the author expresses their opinion or biases, but whether the author has used objective research methods to reach their conclusions. They should have considered several different viewpoints.
Is the overarching purpose of the website you are reviewing to sell you a product, membership, magazine subscription, or conference attendance? This "red flag" can help you determine whether the website or organization is credible. You need to determine whether the studies, expert opinions, or statistics they present are skewed or partially represented to hook you into buying something.
Pay attention to the advertisements and pictures surrounding your article, since these marketing pieces could provide a clue for understanding the periodical's audience. Does the journal seem to target scholars, or does it seem like the articles are solely designed to attract readers, earn more advertising dollars, and sell more magazines? Do the magazine's advertising or funding organizations compromise the integrity or ethos of the publication? Do they make you question the credibility of the content?