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The Writing Center

Evaluating Sources


Criteria to Evaluate Sources

Regardless of where you "do" your research - the library, Internet, surveys, personal interviews, even observation - you should evaluate both the source of your information and the information you gather. Below is a list of criteria that can help determine whether or not a source is useful.


Is the information correct?

One way to be sure about this is to think like a journalist. They always try to get two sources for every story. By finding two (or more) different sources that agree, you can be more certain that the information you've found is accurate. This, however, is only the first test.


The "facts" change: whether it's history, politics, medicine, science or even the weather. New information or evidence contradicts old "facts."

For example, one morning the local meteorologist says that it's supposed to be clear, hot, and humid all day and cloudy tomorrow. Later that day, a cold front speeds up, and the afternoon turns rainy instead of staying clear. Make sure that your sources are using the most "current" information.


Make sure that the source is a known scholar, publication, organization, etc. in a field appropriate to the subject.

After hours of searching, it's easy to get hooked on the article or book you "finally" find. However, keep in mind that all writing, whether on the web or in print, is not created equal.


Newspapers and general interest magazines may be a good first step to research. Depending on the scope and depth of your assignment, it might even be the only step you need to take.

However, many writing projects need research that is more detailed and precise. For instance, your assignment might be a "review of research." In this case you ought to consult journals and books specific to your field instead of simply relying on general interest information.


Who are your source's sources?

When a reader looks at your sources he or she can tell a lot about the research you've done. This documentation also gives your reader places to go for additional information.

Likewise, think about where your sources got their information. Where do they refer you? You might look at these referred sources, applying the same criteria that you used for your original sources.

Evaluating Electronic Sources: A Special Note

When it comes to electronic sources,  pay extra attention to the previous criteria. Unlike printed sources of information - which most often go through a lengthy evaluation and editing process - electronic sources may be posted by anyone.

There are clues which help you identify potentially useful sources, such as who's responsible for maintaining the web site, whether it is a personal web page (/~), a government site (.gov),  a professional organization or society (.org), or  a business (.com).  Identifying the answers to these clues will enable you to better evaluate the site's usefulness.  Use your own good judgement.

  • Sites maintained in other countries usually use an abbreviated form of the country's name ("ie" for Ireland, "ca" for Canada, "de" for Germany (Duetchland), etc. Pay close attention to the author of these sites for clues about its usefulness.
  • If you are subscribing to news groups for research, be careful. While it's true that news groups can be good sources of information, they are often a repository for individual biases, opinions and egos.