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Information Literacy, Level One: Evaluating information

This guide is designed to support the Information Literacy unit within ENG 111, but also provide a first-level introduction to research skills for any Meredith College student.

Evaluating information

As you move forward with your research, you'll need to evaluate the sources you find, to determine if they are reliable, valid and useful for your paper.  This is true for every source you find, but especially crucial for sources that you find on the open web.   

The first step in evaluating a source is to assess whether it is relevant to your topic: whether its information it will help answer your research questions.   When you find a source that appears to be relevant, the next step is to assess the source's quality.

One method you can use to evaluate the quality of sources is to consider them in terms of Authority,  Bias and Currency (ABC).

Authority

Image of student writing on a white board

To effectively support your writing, the information you find will need to be authoritative.   To evaluate the sources you find for authority, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who produced this source?  
  • What are their qualifications or credentials?
  • Are they an expert on the topic, or a writer for a well-respected publication?

If you can't readily identify the author or organization behind your source, or you can't determine that they have qualifications or expertise related to the topic, you may want to look for a more authoritative source.

Meredith Minute-- ABC test

Bias

Image of gold scales

Some of the information you encounter in your research may be biased-- it's important to be aware of possible biases when deciding whether and how to use that information in your paper.  To evaluate your sources for potential bias, ask yourself these questions:  

  • Why was this source produced?  Is it meant to inform, to persuade, to entertain, to inspire an emotion, to sell a product?
  • Who produced this source?  Is there information on the author or organization that produced it indicating that it could be biased?
  • How is the source written?  Is its language moderate and measured, or does it seem emotional or exaggerated? 

Sources with bias can still be useful for your research; for example, they can help you lay out arguments which you'll either support or challenge with evidence.  But it's important to distinguish fact from opinion, and be aware of the biases your sources may have.

Activity: Applying the ABC test

Check your ability to apply the ABC test to evaluate sources by taking this quick quiz!

http://meredith.libwizard.com/ABCtest

Currency

Image of antique books

For many topics, it will be important to have up-to-date information.   To evaluate your sources for currency, ask yourself these questions:

  • When was the source created?  
  • Is it about a topic which changes rapidly?  
  • Could more recent information on this topic be available?

Some topics may be less dependent on current information than others; and older information can sometimes be used to provide a historical perspective.  But for topics having to do with quickly-changing areas like politics, technology and media, keep a close eye on your sources' currency.

 

Lateral Reading

Professional fact checkers don’t just look at the source they are reading to verify if it can be trusted. They do something known as lateral reading, which means investigating and verifying the source you are reading by looking at other sources on the same topic to see how the information compares. You should do lateral reading when trying to determine if a source is valid and can be used in your paper or posted to your social media outlets.  

If you are reading a webpage, you would want to pull up other credible web pages by different authors on the same topic, to see if the information being provided is similar. In many cases,  claims have already been fact-checked. Some places to look at are Wikipedia, Snopes, PolitiFact,  and NPR’s own Fact Check website. You can also go to the original source that is being cited in a work. Once you get to the source of a claim, you can continue to read laterally to find out what other people have said about the publication, author, etc. By doing lateral reading, you are checking whether the information in your source is confirmed or validated elsewhere and if the source would pass the ABC test.