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ENGL 101: Evaluate Sources

Critical Evaluation of Sources

Before trusting a source of information it is always useful to stop and ask, "Who is responsible for this information, and why should I trust them?"

Here are a couple quick considerations for academic writing:

  • Is the author a subject matter expert or a professional journalist adhering to a code of ethics? 
  • Has the writing been fact-checked and edited?
  • Has the writing been peer reviewed?

Peer-review is a time consuming process and not all reliable sources of information need that level of scrutiny. If your instructor requires you to use peer-reviewed sources, be sure to verify your article meets that requirement.

4 Moves and a Habit- Fact Checking

Researchers at the Stanford History Education Group did a study and discovered that most of us aren't great at knowing how to find out if facts are fake, even trained historians

So who is skilled at spotting inaccuracies and misinformation? Fact-checkers.

Professional fact-checkers have developed some shortcuts that are useful for all of us to know. One of the most important is to read laterally - that is, to check some basics by consulting other sources before you spend a lot of time buying into an argument - or spend a few seconds to share something that turns out to be false.

Mike Caulfield has written free textbook on how to check facts. In a nutshell, here are four things you can do and one habit to adopt to become better at distinguishing what is factually true. You may not always need to do all four moves - you may find out in the very first step that someone reputable has already determined something is true or false, and then you're done.

  • Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
  • 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.
  • Read laterally: (Caulfield learned this phrase from the Stanford researchers.) 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.
  • 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.

An important habit to add to the four moves: Check your emotions. 

Some arguments rely on "pushing your buttons" ie. provoking an emotional response which makes you more likely to immediately adopt or dismiss a claim. Instead, try to reason your way through an argument and weigh facts objectively.

For more information, check out Caulfield's free ebook, Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers.

What do we mean by "peer-reviewed?"