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.
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.
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 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:
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-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).
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.
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.
Let'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.
SIFT is a helpful acronym for initially evaluating source credibility. SIFT stands for:
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 (in the next section) to learn more.
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.
Sometimes it's less important to know about the source and more important to assess the claim. Look for credible sources; compare information across sources and determine whether there appears to be a consensus.
Sometimes online information has been removed from its original context (for example, a news story is reported 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.
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.
|Tool||What is it?||Support for this activity|
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:
|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
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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