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ENG 111 & EDE (WO)

You've Been Taught the Wrong Way to Evaluate Sources!

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.

Step 1: Lateral Reading

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. 

  • Do most others indicate the source is trustworthy or do they identify it as biased? 
  • Who funds the organization? 
  • What do other sources say about the topic of your source?  Is it being reported on by major news outlets? 
  • Look for insight from sources that are well known and trusted.

Creative Commons License CC by NC 4.0

Citizen Literacy was created by Robert Detmering, Amber Willenborg, and Terri Holtze for University of Louisville Libraries and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

How to Read Laterally: Evaluating Online Sources from NOVA Libraries on Vimeo.

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.

Step 2: Interrogate Sources with the 5 W's

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.

Who created & published it?

  • Why should you trust them?  Does the author have specialized degrees or other qualifications (work/writing experience) that give them authority?  An author's lived experiences may also make them uniquely qualified.  For example, an Autistic writer has a different type of authority than a medical doctor, though both may claim to be experts on the topic of autism.  Some challenge the value of advanced degrees as markers of authority due to inequities in higher education and society that make it more difficult for some to earn them.
  • Do they work for a reputable organization?  Colleges/universities and government are almost always reputable.  Nonprofits can be great sources of information but may have bias if they present only one point-of-view.
  • Do they have a bias that might influence their writing?  If the author is an organization (common for websites), what is their mission?  What do others say about them?
  •  Newspapers typically go through more fact-checking and editing than most websites.  Most academic journal articles go through the rigorous peer-review process.

What are the claims & evidence? 

  • What type of information does the source contain?  Is it "just the facts" or does it provide analysis and opinions? 
  • What claims does the source make?  Does the source make claims that sound reasonable?  Can you find other reputable sources that make similar claims?  Does the author cite other sources to back-up their claims?  Citations might be a formal list of sources at the end (like in a scholarly article) or informal citations throughout the paper (like a newspaper article mentioning an interviewee's name and credentials). 
  • What is the source's tone and why was it written?  Good sources keep a neutral tone and offer counterpoints from multiple sides of an issue.  A source may be biased if it uses loaded language that makes you feel strong emotions (e.g., outraged or terrified).  Does the source use dramatic or sensational language?  Do they exaggerate the fact to make the story more interesting?

Where did you find it?

  • Did you find the source through the library or the open internet?  Sources from the library are usually more reliable than the open internet, but you should thoroughly evaluate every source you find.
  • Where was it published?  What organization published the source?  Is it reputable?  Some publications have won awards for journalistic integrity, while others are considered tabloids or gossip magazines.  If you are not familiar with the publication, try a quick internet search to learn more about it.
  • For websites, what is the domain?  .gov and .edu sites tend to be more reliable than most .coms and .orgs, but there are exceptions.  Anyone can create a .com or .org site, so evaluate them carefully.

When was it created/updated?

  • Is the source current for your topic?  Currency matters for all topics, but it can be especially important for topics with recent developments (e.g., a new technology or an on-going event).
  • Was the source influenced by the time it was written (i.e., historical context)?  An old source about Andrew Jackson might gloss over his brutality towards Native Americans and enslaved people, a taboo topic at the time of writing.  Be critical of your author's perspective and factors that may have influenced it.
  • What happened since the source was written?  Major events, like a global pandemic or new technology, may completely change the facts around your topic.  An article published today could be out-of-date, depending on what has happened since.

Why do you trust it's a good source?

  • How does the source support your thesis or answer your research question?  Does it offer statistics, interviews or other evidence that is especially relevant?
  • What are the source's strengths and weaknesses?  Every source will have some weaknesses or limitations.  That's okay.  It is important to understand weaknesses in your sources and find other sources that compensate.
  • Why is this source better than others?  There are many sources on your topic.  What makes this one special?

Consider Your Own Biases

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.

So, Are My Sources Good?

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:

Why Does the Library Recommend This Approach?

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. [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.