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Evaluating Online Sources: A Toolkit

Closer Reading

The SIFT moves (described on this guide's first page) are great for initially evaluating online source credibility. Once you establish that a source is overall credible and useful for your work, you'll often want to read and evaluate the source more closely.

Criteria for Source Evaluation

Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers suggests paying close attention to three key aspects of a source: process, expertise, and aim. These criteria are based on Wikipedia's guidelines for evaluating source reliability.  

(Remember to use the four SIFT moves before doing this closer evaluation! If a source isn't credible, is may not be worth your time.)

  • Process: What processes are used to ensure accuracy?  
  • Expertise: What expertise does the content creator(s) have on the topic at hand?
  • Aim: What is the creator's purpose? Do they have an incentive to present accurate information? Are they likely to have a certain perspective on the topic?

A Note about Perspective & Bias

While some sources are primarily informative and others are more opinion-driven, almost all sources reflect a certain perspective (and along with it some degree of bias). This perspective influences what information the creator includes or excludes and how they present that information.

Rather than looking for sources that are completely free of any bias, recognize that most sources have some degree of bias. This is not necessarily a bad thing: people's personal experiences and viewpoints often provide important insights into an issue. Consider what the source creator's perspective is, what expertise they have on the topic, and what evidence they use to support their claims or arguments. Verify evidence by reading laterally and looking at other sources, including ones that may present a different perspective that is still well supported by evidence.


The Human Brain & Confirmation Bias

Our brains are wired to believe things that fit with our preexisting views and to disbelieve those things that challenge our views. This phenomenon is called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias plays a powerful role in how we evaluate and use information. It's a major reason that misinformation easily spreads online. Learn more from this video about how confirmation bias influences us and we can counteract it.

 


Investigating Your Own Biases

Confirmation bias illustrates that we all have have our own perspectives and biases, which are influenced by own unique backgrounds and experiences. Being aware of your own biases can help you evaluate sources, arguments, and your own ideas more critically. Consider the strategies for minimizing bias that the journalists in this video share:

Reading Academic Texts

Academic texts can be especially challenging to read because they're written for experts in an area that is unfamiliar to most people. These strategies can help you navigate academic texts. 

First, remember that reading and writing are social. The author has something to add to a larger conversation. As you read, you are learning about that conversation, and you may later want to become part of the discussion. With the understanding that reading and writing are social, apply rhetorical reading strategies. Ask questions like these:

Author's purpose and audience: Who is the author? To whom are they speaking and why?

Clues into this include:

  • the publication source (e.g., academic journal, magazine, newspaper, book, website);
  • the publication's intended audience
  • language choice and style (e.g., formal or informal, use of specialized terminology)
  • use of evidence (e.g., references to research studies or to other publications, citation practices)

Your purpose: What do you want to gain from reading this source? This will likely influence how you read, such as whether you focus on certain sections more than others, if you take notes of certain things, etc.


Pre-reading: Before reading too closely, get a general understanding of what the source is about. Focus on areas such as the title, the abstract or summary (if available), section headings, and introduction.

Also reflect on how the source relates to your research interest. Identify important terms or concepts that are unclear and look them up if needed. With a general understanding of the source, you will be better able to comprehend it and to determine which areas on which to focus.


Active reading: Active reading strategies will help you better understand the source. Try:

  • highlighting important terms,
  • underlining the main argument,
  • making notes in your own words about key points from the text
  • identifying points of confusion (Don't worry if you don't understand everything; you can return to these areas later, after reading more and, if needed,  learning more about from other sources or from your instructor.

More strategies for before, during, and after reading (UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center)

Reading strategies from students (UCLA Library)