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FILA 150 After the Scourge Class Guide

The Importance of Evaluating Your Sources

So you've found a couple of sources for your paper, but how do you know if they're the of a high-enough quality to include? This page is intended to help you navigate the process of evaluating your sources before you decision to include them into your paper.

When you evaluate information, you need to do it a little differently depending on the type of resource you're looking at, but how do you know the difference between an academic resource and a popular resource.

An academic/scholarly resource:

  • Is generally written by faculty members, medical doctors, and scholars for the purpose of scholarship
  • Uses technical language that is not intended to be understand by the general populace, but rather an expert in the field in which it is published
  • Often will go through the peer-review process, which is intended to ensure the validity of the resource:

A popular resource:

  • Is ordinarily written by a professional journalist or writer, and is intended to be read by a general populace (rather than experts in the field)
  • Written in easily-understood language and cover broader topics
  • Are not evaluated by experts in the field
  • Lack a list of resources that were referenced by the author during the writing process

Considerations for Academic Articles

There are a couple of things you'll want to look for in evaluating an academic article for inclusion in your paper. I recommend looking through these things prior to reading the article so that you don't waste your time reading an article that might not turn out to be worth including in your project.

As an example of evaluation for academic resources, the below PDF has been examined to show you the process to take when evaluating whether an academic article should be included in your paper or speech. Each item is hyperlinked to more information about the process of evaluation:

Paltiel A. D., Zheng A., & Walensky R. P. (2020) Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 screening strategies to permit the safe reopening of college campuses in the United StatesJAMA Netw Open. 3(7). doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.16818


1. Author

Start by evaluating the author. In this article, you see that there are three authors. One has a PHD, one has an BA, and one has an MD. That, to start, looks promising, but you'll want to make sure that the authors are writing about a topic they are actually specialized in (for example, for an article about the mating habits of penguins, an author with an English PhD is not likely to be a good source).

When you look into the authors of this article, you find that the first author is A. David Paltiel, Professor of Public Health and Managerial Sciences at the Yale School of Medicine. The second author, Amy Zheng, is a medical student at Harvard Medical School. The final author is Rochelle Walensky, who is the Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. 

You'll also want to make sure that the author doesn't have a particular bias going into writing the paper. For example, you likely don't want to include an article about cheese products published by someone who is an executive at a Dairy company (because they stand something to gain by writing the article, they're probably not the best source for information). Often, in a journal, a writer will have to disclose any conflicting information. If you scroll down to the page marked number 10 in this particular article, you'll see there's a section marked "Conflict of Interest Disclosures" and it reads that there are none reported, so there is no bias included in the writing of this paper.

While the authors are not the only important thing about an article, you can be fairly certain that authors such as these are likely to be reliable sources for information.

 

2. Information Source

Where is the information coming from and what is the process through which it came to be published? If the information is coming from a peer-reviewed journal, you're more likely to be able to trust the content because of the nature of peer-reviewed work. For more information on peer-review, click here.

So, for this article, how do we know the source of the information? Well, you can see that it is from JAMA Network Open, which you can easily find is an open access journal published by the American Medical Association. If you're unsure whether something is peer-reviewed or not, you can always use the Ulrichsweb database to check this out. For example, when you search JAMA Network Open, you'll see:

You can be sure that this material is peer-reviewed because of the little referee symbol. This symbol means that the journal is "refereed," which is simply another word for peer-reviewed. 

If a title is peer-reviewed and the author is an expert in the field, it is likely that is a fairly credible source. There are still a couple of things that you might like to look for before deciding to include the title in your paper or speech, though.
 

3. Date of Publication

This is a big one (a really big one) for deciding whether something is right to include in your paper. If you're researching the coronavirus, as this paper is discussing, you want the most up-to-date information. If you're looking at a scientific article about the topic written back in February, it's going to be a lot different from this one, which is written in July. For some fields this isn't as important (English or History, for example), but for topics like Business, Medicine, the Science, etc., you're going to want to make sure the information you're looking at is current.

Since this paper is from July 2020, it is likely to include current information.

 

4. Research Methodology

If you've gotten to this point, you likely are good to include this title in your assignment, but if you're really taking a critical eye to the work in question, you'll want to check to see what the research methodology was for the paper. Did it include this information? If you've found a journal article that doesn't include information on how the research was completed, it is not nearly as credible of a source. Part of the reason for the scholarship is to see if the information provided is reproducible. If this information is not given, then it may not be a great source for your paper.

If you find that the research methodology was actually a survey of ten people but it says sweeping things about an entire field, the methodology is not sound (this kind of scholarship would be vetted through the peer-review process, so you're not likely to run into something like this).

Reviewing this article shows that the research methodology is sound, and it would be a good resource to cite.

 

5. Reasonable Conclusions 

The authors of the work may have done good research, but they might draw some conclusions that are not consistent with their results. Make sure to check what the author is saying with the work before using it in your paper. Sometimes, papers will inflate the conclusions from the research, and you don't want to include the unreasonable conclusions in your paper. The exception to this would be if you planned to refute the arguments that were made by the authors as part of your paper.

The conclusions drawn in this example paper are consistent with the research that was done, thus it is a good resource to use in your paper.

 

6. Sources

One last place to check for credibility is the sources that are referenced at the end of the article. Look at the validity of the cited resources and ensure that they cite a reasonable amount of sources for the length of the paper. Here, government organizations, other academic journal articles, and some popular sources are cited. These are more relevant resources for a paper of this nature and the fact that there are 30 sources is a good indication that this source is credible.

If you've decided that the resource you've analyzed for credibility is perfect for your project, you might like to look through the citations to see if there are any other resources that might be helpful to include.


Once you've gone through this process, you'll need to incorporate your sources into your project. For ideas on how to do this, click here.

Considerations for News/Popular Articles

Developed by information professional Mike Caulfield, the four moves of SIFT will help you to look at a news source with a slightly more critical eye. It will keep you from falling into the trap of believing misinformation.

The steps of SIFT, are really quite simple:

STOP

This first step might seem a little ridiculous, but it is the most important one. When you come across a source that includes a new piece of information, STOP and consider the following things:

  • First, what is the source of the information—do you know and trust the website or the person who produced the information? If you don't know the source, use the other moves to get a better idea of what you're looking at.
  • Second, it can be really easy to fall into a rabbit hole once you start fact-checking a resource. Don't allow yourself to get lost in a cycle of clicking to fact-check a claim. Make sure to STOP and remind yourself of what your initial goal was and whether you have used the right amount of depth for your initial purpose.

 

Investigate the Source

The key idea here is to know where the information is coming from before you read it, so that you can have a better idea of the spin a resource might have.

Consider the following two sources:

https://asthma.com AND https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/asthma 

Both websites look like they provide a wealth of information, but stop and take the time to investigate the source of the information. Always take the time to look at the About page and find the true source of information.

When you look into the source of information for the second URL, you find that the information is published by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which is a division of the National Institute of Health. If you go to the About page for the NIH, you learn that it is "a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the nation’s medical research agency — making important discoveries that improve health and save lives." It's safe to say that information about asthma from the NHLBI is likely to be accurate and with the aim of bettering the health of the people of the United States.

If you take the time to look into the publisher of asthma.com, you'll find that it is actually funded and developed by GSK. If you look into GSK, you'll find that they are a pharmaceutical company that (surprise, surprise) sells inhalers. You can be sure that the information provided about the treatment of asthma will be skewed to increase their sales of inhalers and other asthma medications.

 

Find Better Coverage

When an article reaches you, you might care more about the claim that the article is making than the particular article that you are looking at, and you'll want to figure out if what they say is true or false. Another thing you'll want to know: is this claim the subject of a lot of disagreement, or is there a consensus about the topic? 

If you find a claim from a source that isn't trusted, your best bet is to find a better, more trusted source to see what they say about this topic.

To find better coverage doesn't mean to find the best source, it means to find other sources: find sources that are more trusted, more in-depth, and more varied.

To do this quickly, try a popular technique with fact-checkers called lateral searching. Lateral searching means to read about the topic from a number of different sources. This does not mean that you should read 100 different accounts of the same claim. Instead, you should skim through and open several tabs from different sources.

When I am fact checking a claim, I normally use Google and CTRL + Click on a number of sources, so that I can skim through all of them to get better coverage of a topic.

 

Trace Claims, Quotes, and Media to the Original Context

This is the big one! The internet often will include a statement that has been completely stripped of its context. As a result, it might seem to imply something completely different from what actually occurred. For example, there might be a perfectly reasonable speech given by a politician, but a certain line that may seem unsavory has been divorced from the rest of the content and uploaded to YouTube. This would imply something completely different from what was actually said, because it has been taken out of context.

This is especially important when you're looking at an article that seems to make an outrageous claim or has a clickbait-y headline. Try to find the original reporting, research, or photo where it is available on the web. You'll find that a lot of articles actually are simply distilled reports made by other publishers.

If you've enjoyed learning about SIFT, and would like to know more, feel free to view this three-hour minicourse developed by the creator of SIFT, Mike Caulfield.