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English 1213: Composition II: Evaluating

How do you know who to trust?

Whether or not you should use a source depends a lot on how and where you plan to use it. If you're looking for a good restaurant to take your family to when they're in town, looking at reviews on Google or Yelp is probably fine. But if you're writing a research paper on if a major restaurant chain uses sustainable food sources, you will want to look farther, and consider academic sources in food science or agriculture. The video below can help you think more about where you get information and how to determine if you should trust it or not.

Evaluating information for accuracy and authenticity

Whenever you are using information that you have found in an outside source, it is important to carefully check to confirm that the information is accurate and authoritative. How can you do that? Here are some steps you can use to help you determine if you should use a particular source or not. These steps are adapted specifically for doing academic research. The original steps can be found in Mike Caulfield's Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers.

1. Check your emotions and biases.

If you have a strong emotional investment in the topic you're researching, or if you find an article that evokes an emotional reaction out of you, it is important to take a step back and not let your emotions cloud your judgment or rush forward with bad information just because it validates your point of view.

2. Check for retractions or fact-checking done by another source.

Scientific studies are not infallible--they can sometimes be retracted if it is discovered that the research methods weren't correct or the information was presented inaccurately. Places like Retraction Watch keep track of when scientific studies get retracted by journals. You can also look at places like Snopes or for fact-checking of news stories, urban legends, and some scientific studies.

3. Read laterally.

Just because one article makes a claim, does not mean that it is 100% proven to be true. Follow the trail of sources: look at the citations in your article, look for articles that are citing yours, and look for similar research being done by others. If you can find a consensus across multiple sources, then it is more likely that the information you found is accurate.

4. Evaluate the sources.

Think about the process that the author had to go through to get this information out there. Did it go through a peer-review or other editing process where someone was validating the content?

Consider, too, the purpose of the article or source. Why is the person publishing it? What are they hoping to get out of it? Could they have a monetary incentive for pushing certain information out? If it is a research study, can you verify who might have funded the research? A lot of organizations and businesses fund research, so think about what their end goal might be.

5. Circle back.

If you get confused or find yourself having gone off track, go back and start again knowing what you've learned now. You will have more information to help guide you down the correct path.

6. Take action if needed.

Decide whether or not to use that source, and in which context you should use or share it. Also try to incorporate a variety of perspectives and voices into your research so you can be sure you are not letting your own bias get in the way of being as fair and accurate as you possibly can.