Chapter 4: Evaluating information
Once you are sure that you are on task with your research, you can move on to critically evaluate your sources. Even if the sources you’ve found seem to fit your project’s topic well, you will still need to evaluate their quality and context in other ways. Here are some points to consider:
- Conflicts of Interest
You’ll need to understand your sources and decide whether each is worth using. If a source you encounter is low quality or if you can’t verify that it’s reliable, your best strategy is to not use it and move on to other sources.
Don’t rely on first impressions to tell you whether a source is good. There are many great academic websites that appear outdated or poorly designed because the creators’ expertise lies in content rather than web design. You might have noticed that not all of your professors are great at using Canvas, for example. Your course pages may not be the most attractive, but because your professors are experts in their course topics, you can feel confident in using their content. In contrast, some intentionally misleading websites appear sleek and well-supported because their creators have heavily invested in making their work look “reputable.” Rather than evaluating a website based solely on the way it presents itself, follow these steps:
Explore the reputation of the author
Investigate how other sources talk about the author or publication (newspaper, journal, etc.) to learn more about your source’s reputation and authority. Authority is another way of saying “expertise” or “qualifications.” Understanding an author’s background can help you decide whether to trust what they have produced. An author has developed authority in a subject when they have extensively studied or worked in that area.
To check if an author is an authority on their topic, search for them on Google or Wikipedia to determine whether they have a degree or job related to the topic they are writing about. For journalists, check whether the author usually writes about research or if they work primarily on editorial and opinion pieces. Background checks like this may also yield information about an author’s reputation in the academic or professional community. If an author lacks experience in your research topic or has a bad reputation, find a different source.
Investigate the reputation of the publication
In addition, you can assess your source’s authority by investigating the reputation of the publication that produced it. For an article, you can check how the journal, newspaper, or magazine is described and perceived by experts in its field. For books and book chapters, you can check the reputation of the publishing company. You can use Wikipedia and Google to find out more about publications or publishers, just like you can with authors. For example, if the Wikipedia entry for a journal describes it as “infamously racist,” you might want to find sources for your paper elsewhere. Here’s a tip: when using Google to search for this kind of information, include “reputation” as a keyword to find how the publication is perceived, and not just links to its website.
This video from Mike Caulfield walks you through the process of searching for a publication’s information online:
You may have noticed by now that we’ve mentioned Wikipedia a few times. Yes! Just like we said in Chapter 1, Wikipedia can be incredibly useful for finding background information about an author or publication. Keep in mind that Wikipedia does not cover all topics with the same level of detail. An author can still be an expert in their field even if there is no Wikipedia entry for them.
Examine your source’s purpose
A publication’s purpose might be to inform, convince, entertain, sell products, or promote a particular viewpoint. As you investigate your source, you may come across this information through purpose statements. A company or organization’s purpose statement does not necessarily represent its true agenda, but it can give you a good idea of how they want to be perceived. A few examples of purpose statements are provided below:
- TikTok: “TikTok is the leading destination for short-form mobile video. Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.”
- Goop: “We operate from a place of curiosity and nonjudgment [sic], and we start hard conversations, crack open taboos, and look for connection and resonance everywhere we can find it.”
- JSTOR: “We help you explore a wide range of scholarly content through a powerful research and teaching platform.”
Just as you should search for context outside a source to learn about its reputation, don’t stay within the website you’re exploring when you’re trying to figure out its purpose. Find out what other sources say about the company or publication’s purpose as well. For example, checking Wikipedia about Goop finds this: “Goop has faced criticism for marketing products and treatments that are based on pseudoscience, lack efficacy, and are recognized by the medical establishment as harmful or misleading.”
Don’t make assumptions based on the domain
Domains like .edu, .com, and .org can offer hints for where a website’s information came from, but the domain by itself does not give any assurance that its content is accurate, up-to-date, thorough, or unbiased.
- .edu websites are hosted by colleges and other educational institutions, but that doesn’t automatically make their information scholarly. For example, personal home pages for students and staff may have a .edu domain if they’re hosted by the university.
- .com is often associated with businesses and personal websites, but it is also the domain used by many scholarly publishing companies. Journals hosted on .com websites aren’t necessarily any better or worse than journals hosted on .edu or .org websites.
- .org websites are often assumed to represent non-profit organizations, but any group or individual can purchase a .org domain. Even if a .org website is for a non-profit organization, it can still be biased. Non-profit organizations are not necessarily objective and neutral, and their biases may be reflected in how they present their interests and related research. Examples of this include the ways some political organizations, animal rights activist groups, or other organizations use marketing tactics to influence the way you feel about their issues, as opposed to using objective research.
Watch out for potential conflicts of interest
Conflicts of interest are “when an entity or individual becomes unreliable because of a clash between personal (or self-serving) interests and professional duties or responsibilities.” Sometimes an author or publisher’s personal, political, or business relationships may affect the objectivity of their work. Check if any funding information or corporate ties to the project are listed, and consider whether those ties are likely to impact how the research is presented. You can typically find this information by reading the “sponsors” or “special thanks” section at the end of an article or elsewhere on their website. In some cases, you may find a section explicitly titled “potential conflicts of interest.” In other cases, this information may not be clearly listed and you will have to search for it elsewhere online.
For example, the article “Impact of cocoa flavanol intake on age-dependent vascular stiffness in healthy men,” is funded in part by “an unrestricted grant from Mars, Inc.” (the makers of M&M’s and other candy). It asserts that flavanols found in cocoa may help lower blood pressure; however, because of the article’s association with Mars, its results should be carefully compared with other sources. The article doesn’t assert that simply eating chocolate impacts blood pressure, but the cocoa flavanols that are the focus of the study are a component of cocoa-based nutritional supplements sold by Mars, Inc. Therefore, the researchers have a clear conflict of interest because their research is sponsored by Mars.
Industry support is a common source of research funding in many fields, which may be a conflict of interest for researchers. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate an author’s work, but you will need to determine whether those conflicts affected how their research was carried out and reported.
- TikTok. (n.d.). Our mission. https://www.tiktok.com/about ↵
- Goop. (n.d.) What's Goop? https://goop.com/whats-goop/ ↵
- JSTOR. (n.d.). About JSTOR. https://about.jstor.org/ ↵
- Wikimedia contributors. (n.d.). Goop (company). Retrieved August 12, 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goop_(company) ↵
- Segal, T. (2020, December 1). Conflict of interest. Investopedia. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/conflict-of-interest.asp ↵