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Navigating the Research Process

Evaluating Internet Sources

Are you a fact-checker?

How do you approach engaging with the information you find on the internet? Do you tend to share news stories on your social media as soon as you see them? Or are you more skeptical of what you read?

The SIFT method can help you be a better fact-checker who tries to stop the spread of misinformation.

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Stop
When you see some new information, stop and ask yourself if you know anything about the source. If you've never heard of it, you will not know the source's reputation or whether to believe the claims that you read. It is worth the time to investigate before sharing something with a wider audience. This step applies when your purpose is just to repost AND when you need to do a deep dive for research. 
Investigate the Source
You want to know what you're reading before you read it. Essentially, you cannot rely on the source to give you unbiased information about itself. Reading the About Us section is not going to cut it. Use tools like Google and Wikipedia to find out more information about the source. The truth is in the network--understanding a source's potential biases, strengths, and weaknesses can 
Find Better (Trusted) Coverage
Ignore the source that came to you and look for better coverage about the claim or reporting. You are not trying to find reporting that you agree with in this step! You are doing the work of understanding the context and history of a claim to really be able to evaluate it. 
Trace Claims, Quotes, and Media to the Original Context
Since much of web content is not original, you may be looking at a source that is citing other research or reporting. You can trace elements back to the original source to see it in context. It will give you a better sense of whether what you saw first was accurately represented. 

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.

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. 

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