We are constantly finding new information, but how can you tell if what you find is true? You could spot a fake news story, image or video, right? Unfortunately, it's getting more difficult. Evaluating sources has become a necessary skill in educational, work and personal settings.
Most people are taught to evaluate sources by examining them closely, looking for markers of credibility. The advice is to read a site's "about" page, avoid sites with ads, and use sites that look "professional" or "official". The problem is that all writers want their content to look trustworthy, and less credible authors may mimic these superficial aspects of a source to trick you and gain your trust. ChatGPT even creates fake citations to make itself look more believable, and some human writers do as well. It is surprisingly easy, and misleading sources fool intelligent people. Telling truth from lies online isn't about being smart; it's about being curious and asking the right questions.
So, how can you tell if information you find is credible? Based on how people create and consume digital content, this is what we recommend:
To evaluate a source, first see what others say about it, then examine it using 5 W's questions.
The basic idea of lateral reading is to see what trusted sites are saying about it instead of only looking at the source itself. Lateral reading helps you quickly decide if a source is trustworthy. Your goal in this step is to get a quick impression of the source and decide if it is worth investigating further.
Try a Google search for the organization or author responsible for the source.
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Try an example:
The class will split into two groups. Half will examine only the websites below and the other will use only a Google search for those organizations.
Are these sources trustworthy?
Which group got the answer faster? Who was more accurate?
This example was tested with college students, historians and professional fact-checkers. The students and historians took a long time and many answered wrongly, because they examined only the source itself. Professional fact checkers got the correct answer in seconds using lateral reading.*
Lateral reading can get complicated. Try this example:
You are writing a paper about how colleges can support Autistic students. Which organization will give you better background on autism and Autistic people?
Lateral reading shows that one of these organizations is much larger and well-known than the other, but did you find which organization might be problematic? Try another search, but this time, try searching for the organization or author and "controversy". Controversial organizations/authors can be fantastic sources, but we need to understand the controversy around them to put the information they provide in context. One of the organizations above is dominated by doctors, parents of Autistic children and other neurotypicals, while the other is led by Autistcs. Who has better credibility to talk about Autistic college students?
*Wineburg, Sam, and Sarah McGrew. “Lateral Reading and the Nature of Expertise: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information.” Teachers College Record, vol. 121, no. 11, Sept. 2019, pp. 1–20. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3048994
Now that multiple sources indicate your source is trustworthy, you can examine the source itself. Examine the source and answer these questions. If you can't answer them reading the source itself, try more lateral reading with searches for the author, publication, or major claims they make.
The 5 W's focus on bias in the author, publisher and the writing itself, but there is another important source of bias to investigate - yourself.
Confirmation bias is the idea that people tend to trust sources that agree with them and distrust those that disagree.
You hold beliefs about the world; some may even be a core part of who you are. That makes it difficult to read sources that disagree with you. Many simply ignore sources that disagree with them, but it is important to understand different perspectives. How else can you engage in productive discussions?
Reflect on your own biases and ask yourself if you have given fair consideration to other perspectives. This is difficult but essential to good writing.
Now that you understand how to evaluate sources, you might be wondering, "So, are my sources good?" Well,...
Source evaluation isn't about sorting sources into "Good" and "Bad" buckets. It's about understanding potential biases in your source and taking those into account when you read and write. Some sources are better than others, but no source is perfect. Now, you have the tools to think critically about what you read and can decide for yourself what to use and how to use it. Ask a librarian if you need help.
There are a lot of different techniques for source evaluation. If you'd like more information, we recommend these guides:
Librarians are experts in how people seek, find and use information. We are also interested in how people think and learn. Our approach to information literacy instruction is driven by research in fields like psychology of learning, instructional design, and human-computer interaction. Our recommendation for using lateral reading as the first step to source evaluation is is supported by these articles and many others:
Wineburg, Sam, and Sarah McGrew. "Lateral Reading and the Nature of Expertise: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information." Teachers College Record, vol. 121, no. 11, 2019, pp. 1–40. https://doi.org/10.1177/016146811912101102. [Read working paper version].
Ziv, Nadiv, and Emma Bene. “Preparing College Students for a Digital Age: A Survey of Instructional Approaches to Spotting Misinformation.”College and Research Libraries, vol. 83, no. 6, Nov. 2022, pp. 905-25. https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/download/24799/33592.