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ENG151 SIFTing Through Information

Identifying Your Source

Why do we need to identify a source to begin with? The answer is because it will impact how you evaluate that source. If you know a source is scholarly, you know that it has already gone through a rigorous review process and has been vetted before publication. 

Websites, posts on social media, even articles in newspapers and magazines have not been as carefully evaluated so it falls on us to evaluate those sources differently and more thoroughly. That is not to say that scholarly articles are flawless.

One example is an article published in the Lancet, a reputable medical journal, on vaccines and autism that was later redacted because of flaws in the study. Unfortunately, this study had lasting consequences. Today many still believe vaccines cause autism because of that study.

Nowadays, it is easy to be fooled by sources we find online. We need a specific set of skills to evaluate those types of sources. We need different criteria for evaluating scholarly sources.

Scholarly sources may not require the same evaluation process as popular sources but scholarly sources should still be evaluated. Consider the following when evaluating a scholarly source:

  • Authority: Are the author's credentials directly related to the topic of the scholarly article? Scholarly sources usually provide that information for you, especially if you found the source in a library database. 
  • Currency: When was the source published? Your instructor may require you to find scholarly articles that are current or in a specific date range.
  • Relevancy: Is the article is relevant to your research needs? You found a scholarly article, but is it the right scholarly article for your specific research question? 
  • Bias: What is the purpose of the scholarly article? Is it primarily fact based? Does it share original research? Scholars may also write commentary and editorials. Language should be free from emotion and the author should provide evidence for their argument.

Popular sources are the ones we are most familiar with. They are the magazines and newspapers we see in the grocery store. They are written to entertain us, inform us of current events, or help us learn more about a hobby or interest. They are written for a general audience and include lots of glossy pictures and advertisements. They are usually written by journalists, not experts in a field of study. Their expertise is journalism, and as such, they are expected to uphold certain ethics, unlike people posting to blogs, websites, or social media platforms that might not follow any standards. Think about your sources and where they might land on a continuum of quality, reliability, fairness, and accuracy.  Next, we will learn a method for evaluating popular sources and other information you might encounter online.