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Navigating the Research Process

Evaluating Internet Sources

Are you a fact-checker?

Depending on your assignment and what you are researching, all your sources may come from the Internet. A Google search and you're done, right? (If you've gone through the previous modules, you know that the answer in no).

A Note about Fake News

So, if you're not aware, 2016 became the year of fake news and alternative facts. The (actual) fact is, though, that fake news existed before 2016. Loooong before then. The time we live in is unique because of how quickly information spreads. If you recall from the Information Cycle page, information spreads really quickly on the web before making its way through other types of media. This leads to the spread of misinformation because there is little time to fact check what is true and what isn't and our emotions are targeted the most. What can we do about it?

Honestly, nothing about the fake news part of it. As long as there is a free flow of information, there will be a free flow of fake news and misinformation. Your job as a citizen of the world is to not get duped. Your job is to act ethically in the face of fake news online.

Think about your Facebook feed or Twitter timeline. How many times did a friend or family member post about a celebrity dying and they're not dead (yet)? Or reposted something about a politician from the opposite party taking away all of our rights because they did or said X? And then it turned out to be fake or exaggerated.

Be honest, have you ever retweeted or reposted something that then ended up being untrue?

You may have seen lists online or your professor gave you a list of proven fake news sites that you should definitely avoid. These are valiant efforts in the fight against misinformation but fake news is a moving target. Some sources will have fake news most of the time, and then have great reporting or information at other times. Other sites are true most of the time, but then report some fake news. Does one fake news report make the entire source fake news?

Here is a source that has useful information about being critical of information you find on the internet.

Web literacy for Student Fact Checkers

This ebook has strategies and case studies to help you be more critical of what you see on the internet. Please consider reading the whole thing but if you do not have the time, here is the basic advice.

Four Moves for Fact-Checking

  • Check for previous work

Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
Good places to check include: Snopes.com, Politifact.com, Washington Post Fact Checker. Even Wikipedia!
  • Go upstream to the source

Go "upstream" to find the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original sources to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
This applies to any studies being referenced in a newspaper or website article.
  • Read Laterally

Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.) The truth is in the network.
  • Circle back

If you get lost, or hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You're likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

Tell me, how does it make you feel?

Another really important thing to be aware of when looking for information on Google, or wherever on the internet, is your reactions to it. Information may be presented in an inflammatory way: maybe it makes you really angry because you don't agree with you OR really happy because you DO agree with it. Either way, take a step back.  From Caulfield's Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers:

Our normal inclination is to ignore verification needs when we strongly react to content, and researchers have found that content that causes strong emotions (both positive and negative) spreads the fastest through our social networks.[1] Savvy activists and advocates utilize this flaw of ours, getting past our filters by posting material that goes straight to our heart.

If you find your heart racing, blood pressure spiking or tears start welling up in your eyes, take a second and make sure of the facts.

Image of graphic describing Fact-Checking in Four Moves

Evaluating Scholarly Sources

Okay. You now have some idea of what it means to evaluate the information you find on the Internet, but what about scholarly sources?

Evaluating your scholarly sources can help you figure out the best materials for your academic research. Remember, you're not selecting these sources as a means to simply fill a source quota and/or to insert a quotation from an expert in the field. Each source you use in a paper should be there for a reason. Don't use something if you can't explain why it was chosen and what it contributes to your paper or project.

Now let's look at the methods we can use to evaluate scholarly sources.

Authority: Is the author/Are the authors of the work experts in the subject area under discussion in your scholarly source? 

Determining this is fairly simple. First take a look at the credentials of the author. For example, do they have a PhD or other terminal degree related to the subject matter they are writing about? Basically, you want to make sure that the person(s) that authored the work in question have the expertise to back up their research. A simple Google search of the author(s) can give you this info.

Date: Is the information under examination sufficiently current for the topic under discussion?

Date of publication can be important for determining the value of a scholarly work to your research project. In many cases, you are going to want to use the most recent scholarship on a topic. This depends on the subject you are researching. For a nursing student, for example, older materials could result in them missing out on current trends in research. 

Audience: Who is the author/are the authors writing for?

From this guide, you will know the answer to this question. In academic literature, the writing is definitely for an academic audience (professors, professional researchers, graduate students). You can see this in the type of language used in the work. Technical terminology and subject-focused vocabulary can tip a reader off that the audience is an academic one, since there is an expectation that these terms should be familiar to readers.  

Relevance: Is the academic resource you are examining relevant to your research goals?

By reading the abstract or a summary of your selected source, you can determine whether or not it has some relevance to your topic. This can help you to determine if the resource provides the content coverage, methodology, and/or scope of information necessary to fill your information needs. You can also examine the list of references utilized in the work to see if the author(s) uses information from other authors and researchers you previously determined were relevant to your research.

Source/Publisher: Is the resource an academic article from a journal? Is it a scholarly book? If the resource came from a library database, was there a limiter for finding only peer-reviewed resources?

Oftentimes recognizing that a work was published by a university press, professional society, or scientific publisher can signal it as a scholarly source. If you are unfamiliar with a publisher and whether or not it publishes academic content, a quick Google search of the publisher name can often give you the information you need to determine the academic merits of a publisher. Additionally, a quick way to narrow down library database searches to academic-focused content is to select a limiter that only displays results that come from peer-reviewed publications.

Hopefully, you can recall that earlier in this guide you learned that it is not a good idea to just jump into scholarly materials without some background information. Doing so would be like starting a book halfway through--you're confused about what is going on, you don't know who anyone is and why they are saying what they are saying. You probably would get the gist of things, but not enough to really know what was going on. 

To answer the above questions in evaluating scholarly sources, you need to have some background and context. You cannot determine whether something is timely if you don't know a little about the history or what has been said. You cannot determine the relevance if you have not given some thought to your research as a whole. You will not be able to spot the disagreements or disputes of authors unless you read what came previously.