CMS: Evaluating Sources

Copyright Stewart Savard, February 2005.

Student must constantly evaluate the sources of the information they are thinking of using. The following points, summarized from Joseph Gibaldi (MLA Handbook), may be helpful as you attempt to evaluate sources.

"(Do) not assume that something is truthful or trustworthy just because it appears in print or on the Internet." (pgs. 25-26)

Just because someone has been able to print something or has had access to the Internet does not mean that they have their facts right or that their work is unbiased. A good researcher questions their sources. The best way to make an informed opinion is to use a variety of different sources, such as your textbook, library books, encyclopdeias, and the internet to build a broad base of knowledge about a topic.

 

Authorship

Who wrote the material you are reading or examining? Do they have a specific point-of-view? Has this point-of-view influenced their work? (Did they leave out important information because they didn't agree with what it said?) Do they have a bias?

Any material that fails to tell you who the author or publisher is, when the material was written (and updated), and who is responsible for its publication must be questioned and perhaps discarded.

For information from a print encyclopedia, an article in a journal, or a book this information is usually found on the Title Page and the Verso.

When using the Internet look for:

- the name of the sponsoring organization (and links to contacts via e-mail, the phone, or mail in case you have questions),
- the title of a particular web page (sometimes found in the URL),
- the author, or authors, names,
- a date when the original web page was created or posted, and
- the date, or dates, for any revisions to the web page.

Authority

What authority does the author of the material you are using have? Are they recognized as an expert in their field? Are they simply an individual with a point of view?

The print publications that researchers depend on, in the non-fiction collection of a library, are generally issued by reputable publishers, that accept accountability for the work they sell. Assessing the authority of Internet resources is a particular challenge. Just because someone wrote it does not make it true.

Almost all publishers of textbooks and non-fiction books use a process of review. This means that an author who wants to have a book published expects to have their peers (other experts in the same field) read and comment on work before it is published. This kind of review helps to correct mistakes and gives authority to a writer’s work.

"Some Internet sites conduct this kind of evaluation, but most do not.
Many online materials are self-published without any outside review." (pg. 26)

 

Accuracy and Verifiability

Almost all scholarly work quotes the work of other experts. These sources should be listed in a bibliography. Bibliographies should be used as guides for your research. They can be used to see the breadth or bias of an author’s work.

If an article or book fails to include a bibliography then you should look for another source for your research.

 
Currency

How current is the material you are planning to use? Is currency important for your research topic?

In some fields currency is very important. (The images beamed back from Titan in January 2005 highlight how important currency is in astronomy.) In many fields new ideas and theories are constantly being produced. These ideas and theories may be critical to your research. The same is true for research in areas such as cancer.

In other fields you may want to read original documents that are sometimes hundreds of years old as sources of information. As a researcher you are responsible for knowing whether the material you are using is current and whether this is important.

 
Bibliography

Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 5th ed. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1999.

 
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