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LCC Library

Library Research Toolkit

Need to do research and not sure where to start? This guide offers support to beginning and intermediate researchers with explanations about common processes, how-tos, and tutorials. Use the menu on the left to expand the options for each category.

Evaluate information

Evaluating information is fundamental to the research process. Use this criteria to help you decide if an article or other resource is credible and usable in your project. For more about deciphering misinformation, see below.

Currency - How old is the article?

Recent articles can be more relevant, but not always. Is currency important to your topic? Topics about technology or medicine require that information be no older than five years. Maybe the article is foundational, that is, important and influential in that field of study.  Or maybe the topic you are studying is not date dependent, like history or literary analysis.

Authority - Who is the author(s)? Are they a journalist, offering an opinion, or somehow invested in the topic?

Most articles in magazines and newspapers, both in print and online, are written by professional journalists who are not necessarily experts about the topic. If the author is named in a byline, use Google to find more information about them. Newspapers of record, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, are considered more reputable than a small, regional paper.

Point of View - All information sources have bias of some kind, even if they are well-respected. 

Even scholarly journals have their own lens of professional bias. Some publications want to sway your opinion, whether they admit to it or not. Does the source have a recognized bias? Does the source show a cultural bias?  Try searching for the title of the magazine, newspaper, or journal in Google or Wikipedia, and see what you can determine about the publication itself.

Relevance - The article should provide information that is directly related to your topic. 

Before you decide to use an article, skim the whole thing. The abstract (if available) can tell you a lot about the level of expertise required to understand the article.

Depth - The article should provide information that is detailed enough to improve your understanding of an issue. 

Look for articles that do more than provide lists of facts and provide some analysis.  Articles less than a page in length rarely are substantial enough to be used as sources for a college-level paper.  Possible exceptions include newspaper articles and short articles that contain useful quotes or statistics.

Type of Source and Purpose -  How is this information intended to be used?

It’s useful to determine the purpose of the article.   Is it from a sensational tabloid, a newspaper, a popular magazine, a news magazine, a special interest magazine, a trade or professional magazine, or a scholarly journal?  How is the title used? Does the author intend to prove a point?  Is the language inflammatory? Educational?  Articles often fulfill more than one purpose, but think about this before you decide whether it’s appropriate for your purposes and how you can utilize the information or viewpoint offered.

Popular & scholarly articles

Popular sources are written for general audiences.

You don't have to be an expert to read a popular source. Popular sources often include lots of photos or illustrations, some advertising, and rarely include a bibliography. But they can be very informative and might be perfect for your topic. Examples of popular sources include newspaper articles, National Geographic, Psychology Today, news magazines, leisure magazines, and specialty magazines.

Scholarly sources are written for specialists.

You typically need a bit of background knowledge to understand articles in scholarly journals, conference proceedings, and the like. They are written for experts and aim to advance knowledge in the field. Articles from scholarly sources tend to include references, footnotes, graphs, etc.

Scientific sources are written to share research.

Scientific articles are distinguished by several features including the structure of the information, the expert language used, and the ways that data is referenced. Here are the main attributes:

  • Article is organized into sections with headings: Abstract, Introduction, Literature review, Research Methods, Research Results, Discussion, and References. Not all of these headings will be in every scientific article but many will be.
  • Authors' affiliations and/or credentials are noted. Contact information may be included.
  • Usually long and in-depth; 10-20+ pages is typical.
  • Includes graphs, tables or images to support the claims but rarely advertisements.
  • Includes specialized or discipline-specific language. These articles are written for experts in the field and often difficult for general readers to understand.
  • Information is presented objectively, without personal opinion. That said, look for statements about possible conflict of interest.
  • Includes Reference lists at the end, footnotes, and in-text citations.
  • Published in scientific journals or on academic platforms.

Scientific information is not the kind of information used by the general public, but it is often used as a source for journalists, is available on government websites (especially those funded by taxpayer-supported research), and in academic contexts (such as research organizations, think tanks, etc.).

Peer-reviewed articles

Peer-review is a process in which an author submits a paper to a journal for review by other experts in the field before it is published.

 

drawing of article with magnifierPeer-review looks different in different disciplines, according to standards of the discipline. (Not all scholarly articles are peer-reviewed but many are.)

For example, peer-reviewed articles in Art History will look different from peer-reviewed scientific articles in Microbiology. Some scientific articles go through multiple instances of review before publication. Blind peer-review is when neither the author nor the reviewers know each others' identities.

It is important to state that peer-review does not necessarily improve information or eliminate bias. The peer-review process is not separate from the culture of research and inquiry, and is shaped by the norms of a given community of scholars. Look for a statement addressing conflict of interest by the author(s).

Opinions & editorials

Editorials are opinion pieces expressly written to support a point of view. Large newspapers have their own editorial writers, but many smaller papers re-publish editorials from larger publishers. Editorials can be informative because they intend to persuade. For an editorial to be useful in research it must clearly show evidence and provide factual analysis. Just having a strong opinion is not enough—anyone can have an opinion, and everyone does

An editorial should provide data or evidence to support the position stated. If you are not sure who the author is, Google the credentials and affiliation of the writer(s). Many editorials are written by people who have a vested interest in the position, are corporate heads, lobbyists, politicians representing an industry, or have other conflicts of interest. It is important to understand how a conflict of interest might inform the opinions being expressed. image of voice bubbles

For example, let's say the editorial is about the Green New Deal, a Congressional resolution focusing on the development of sustainable industry and economic development in the context of climate change.

Will the author(s) have any monetary benefit to promoting the Green New Deal? Are they a climate scientist? Will they benefit directly from passage of the bill in the form of stock holdings, corporate relationships, etc.? The CEO of a coal mine may have a decidedly negative view of the Green New Deal because coal production is expected to decrease with the bill's passage. A CEO of a solar panel plant is likely to be very supportive because their industry will receive government subsidies.

Social media

icons of social media platforms facebook, instagram, twiiter and othersLet's consider the content from posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Discord, and other social media platforms. This content is information—in the broadest sense of the term—but it may not be that useful for academic research (unless you are researching social media behavior itself ...). You may find valuable information linked from a social media post. Be sure that the links you follow locate the original source of the information, and then evaluate the content carefully. Just because something has been shared millions of times does not make it valid information. Lots of social media is posted and re-posted using automated means.

Social media feeds combine content from many different sources, including fake social media accounts, pushed content, propaganda created to influence behavior (such as voting, public opinion), advertising, and personal opinion. It is critical to understand that social media platforms are created to make money for the platform, not distribute useful information. This is done through social media platforms pushing content to you based on previous search and sharing habits, clicking on paid content (click bait), the sale of personal data, advertising presented as information, etc.

Use the SIFT method to evaluate online sources

SIFT is a helpful acronym for initially evaluating source credibility. SIFT stands for:

STOP.

Pause and ask yourself if you recognize the information source and if you know anything about the website or the claim's reputation.  If not, use the four moves (below) to learn more.


INVESTIGATE the source.


Take a minute to identify where this information comes from and to consider the creator's expertise and agenda. Is this source worth your time? Look at what others have said about the source to help with you these questions. Read laterally — go off the page/source and find info about the source, the organization, or the author.


FIND trusted coverage.


Sometimes it's less important to know about the source and more importance to assess their claim. Look for credible sources; compare information across sources and determine whether there appears to be a consensus.


TRACE claims, quotes, and media back to the original context.


Sometimes online information has been removed from its original context (for example, a news story is reported on in another online publication or an image is shared on Twitter). If needed, trace the information back to the original source in order to re-contextualize it. 

After you determine the site is worth your time, you can analyze the source's content more carefully.

Modified from Mike Caulfield's SIFT (Four Moves), which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Deciphering misinformation: The Four Moves

Finding solid information about some topics is complicated by the controversies or strong opinions held about them. Misinformation is intentionally created to obscure facts, create confusion, and manipulate the truth. Use the criteria below to determine if the information you are using is actually misinformation. This checklist is adapted from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers by Michael A. Caulfield, with additional information from Peter D. Adams at the News Literacy Project.

Step 1 - Check for previous work.

No information stands alone: all information is the product of authors, publishers, institutions, or organizations.  Look online to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of the topic or issue. If the claim seems outrageous, it may have already been debunked. Politifact, Snopes, or Wikipedia can help you determine controversy. Tracing claims to their source, identifying the author/owner, and identifying reputable sources for counterclaims are methods to establish credibility and reliability. Example of this in action.

Step 2 - Go "upstream" to the source.

Most web content is not original. Information is often reformatted (or reconstructed) from other sources, including social media. Try to get to the original source to evaluate the trustworthiness of the information. If you can’t find previous work on the claim, try tracing the claim to the source. If the claim is about research, try to find the journal it appeared in (a librarian can help with this). If the claim is about an event, try to find the news publication in which it was originally reported. Try to determine if the content is sponsored by an organization, or a paid advertisement. Example of this in action.

Step 3 Read laterally (or vertically).

Always read multiple sources on an issue. Read about the source itself (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the collective network.  Maybe the source is known to be reputable, such as the journal Science or the newspaper Washington Post. If it is not clear, leave the source and look for information about it. An “About Us” on a fake site isn’t going to help -- move off the site. Read vertically by using comments in social media to verify claims. Often, misinformation is called out quickly by commenters. This is especially true on Twitter and Facebook due to the millions of users interacting with content minute-by-minute. Example of this in action.

Step 4 - Circle back.

If you get lost or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over with your new knowledge. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

Fact-checking

Fact-checking Tools for News and Images

Adapted from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers by Michael A. Caulfield, with additional perspective from Peter D. Adams at the News Literacy Project

Tool What is it? Support for this activity
Critical observation

Your own powers of observation! 

Use tools learned in evaluation of all information. Is the content written by an expert? What is the purpose of the site? Is the information re-posted from another site?

Is the image what it describes? How can you tell?

Search for author on the open web. What else have they written, and for which outlets?

Observation checklist for images: 

  • architecture

  • clothing

  • climate/weather

  • visible text, street numbers, street names

  • signs or landmarks

  • license plates

  • distinctive details

Using web archives Find an archived version of a website using a URL. This can be useful if the information you are looking for has been removed. You can also archive content that is problematic for future reference, and avoid traffic to a problematic site.

Wayback Machine (internet archive)

Archive.Today (snapshot of webpages)
Reverse image search Find multiple instances of an image on the web in context. This can be useful for confirming the original source of an image, mis-use or manipulation of an image (through cropping, Photoshopping, erasure, etc.)

Google Image search function

TinEye

Reversee (app to download)

RevEye Reverse (Chrome extension)

InVID (Chrome extension)
Geolocation Find geographic coordinates of an image using image metadata created when the image was shot. Can be used to verify when an image was taken. Use Google Images to explore locations. Street View in Google Maps
Fact-checking websites Lots of fact-checking sites available, such as Snopes, Factcheck.org, Truth Be Told, Washington Post Fact Check, SciCheck, etc. Websites for fact-checkers

 

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