Part 4. Evaluate your Sources
Making some judgment as to the purpose of your source will also help you determine whether the information it contains is accurate. Asking why something has been published, what overall purpose its author had in creating and sharing it, is part of the critical assessment you’ll need to do in order to decide whether you should use it for your research.
For peer reviewed journal articles, books published by scholarly or professional publishers, government reports, and stories from mainstream news outlets, you can be fairly confident that the purpose behind such publications is to provide unbiased information or contribute to knowledge about a certain topic. A large part of a formal review process includes careful fact-checking by the reviewers.
But evaluating sources from your Google search requires close scrutiny. Ask why a site exists. Are the authors or creators likely to be using unbiased information? Might they be motivated to spread inaccuracies or misinformation? What evidence do they use to support their claims?
Take the following example. You decide to research the topic of whether municipalities should add fluoride to public drinking water.
A Google search produces a mix of government health and consumer advocacy sites, including this one from a popular natural medicine website Natural News[New Tab]. (Keep this tab open to answer some of the following questions about the site.)
1. Start by examining the URL
You might begin with a quick check of the URL (the link) and the domain; this will tell you something about the overall purpose of the site. Which of the categories below does this natural medicine site fall into?
2. Look around the site
Further evidence of a commercial purpose is clear by the striking presence of advertisements for natural health products and apps, many of which are not related to the topic. Also note the online store. What might this tell you about the intent of the site?
Is it possible to determine the accuracy of the information? The external links provided at the bottom of the article simply refer back to other articles on the same website. A check of the two studies referenced do not conclude that fluoridated water causes the purported health problems, but suggest that further investigation is warranted.
3. Leave the page
Open a new tab or window and do a quick Google search of the owner’s name (find this on the About Natural News page) and the website. How is it regarded by other sources, namely the mainstream press, Wikipedia, and other fact-checking sites?
To summarize, learning to incorporate these questions when assessing a source of information will lead you to make good decisions about whether it should be used in your assignment.