Looking for Credible Sources? Try This Approach

Looking for Credible Sources? Try This Approach

Online students have weekly assignments that frequently require them to find new sources of information — and they have to obtain that information quickly because of assignment deadlines. In addition, whether it is a written paper or discussion board posting, students are required to process and interpret the information they've acquired rather than just collecting and reporting what they’ve found. This is not an easy process for many students, who typically begin their hunt for information with an Internet search or online library database exploration. The challenge is finding sources of information that are appropriate and acceptable. As an online instructor, I can provide you with a search strategy that will help you find credible sources that can be used for any academic assignment.

Students typically begin their evaluation of a source by visually inspecting the information or making a decision based upon their initial impression of an article or website. For example, if the source appears to be well-written and presented in a professional-looking format, students may assume it is credible and acceptable for use with their assignments; however, this is not always an accurate assessment. Remember that a well-formatted article is an indicator of the author’s writing skills and is not necessarily a determining factor of credibility.

Another factor that influences a student’s ability to assess the credibility of a source of information is their prior knowledge of the subject. Unfortunately, most students have little prior knowledge of the subjects they research — after all, that's the reason they're in class to learn about those subjects. This explains why it’s difficult for many students to know if they have selected the best source, especially if the article seems to provide extensive coverage of the topic.  This is also a reason why students utilize information repositories such as Wikipedia. The challenge for utilizing Wikipedia is that the information provided can be edited by anyone and is often written by authors with little or no experience related to the subject, making it more likely for incorrect information to be published.

An effective approach for evaluating the sources you’ve found so that you only use authoritative and accurate ones will follow these steps: determine the goal of your assignment, assess the credibility of the author and the source, and objectively evaluate information contained within the source. At first, this seems like a lengthy process, but you’ll find that over time, you'll become much more proficient with the process. This will ensure that the assignments you submit are well-documented.

Determine the Goal of Your Assignment 

Before you begin to search for sources, consider the purpose or goal of the assignment. For example, is this a written paper or a discussion question response? Your instructors expect that for all of your assignments, you will present your analysis, demonstrate critical thought about the topic or subject, and support your response with well-informed resources. This is especially important for discussion board postings. Many students will use these postings to voice their opinions, and while this may be a valid starting point, it is not enough to demonstrate critical analysis for your academic work.

The most effective starting point or approach for your assignments is to write down your initial thoughts about the subject and draft an outline of the potential sections for your paper or posting. As you search for sources and begin reading information about the subject, you can further refine your ideas. The goal of most assignments is to demonstrate the use of logic and reasoning skills, supported with credible sources related to the subject. Instead of relying on opinions, consider facts or information that is verifiable, along with research that has been conducted by experts in the field.
Assess the Credibility of the Author 

As a general rule, every source used in an academic paper needs to have an author listed. Some instructors may make an exception, depending upon the requirements of the assignment. However, an author is necessary because that is one of the determining factors for the assessment of a source's credibility. The following is a list of questions you can ask as you review a website or article to evaluate the author’s credibility. The more questions you can answer, the more likely you can use this source of information.
•    What are the author’s credentials?
•    Is the author a subject-matter expert?
•    What is the author’s background and overall qualifications?
•    Is the author published in any other sources?
•    Does the author have any affiliations that may lead to potential bias?

Assess the Credibility of the Source 

Print sources go through a publication process where they are edited and reviewed for quality. That process does not guarantee credibility of the source. For example, students may consider newspapers and online news reports to be credible sources; however, students must still first assess the author’s credentials and then determine if there may be any influence or bias because of the publisher. For example, was the news story written by a columnist or a subject-matter expert? Does the news story present research data or is it an editorial piece? Most instructors will accept a news source if it is anchored by an authoritative source and utilized to support a paper about current trends and issues.

A peer-reviewed journal is an example of a print source that is considered reliable, valid, and credible, which students have access to through online library databases. A peer-reviewed journal is evaluated by experts in the subject field and authors who contribute articles to these journals will find their articles are also peer-reviewed and assessed by the same standards. Almost all instructors prefer a peer-review journal article as a source instead of an online website source because there are far fewer questions of credibility involved with a journal article.

As you search for peer-reviewed journal articles, you are likely to find research studies, which provide a source of scholarly information. The purpose of a study is to address an issue or problem related to specific field. For example, a professor may conduct a research study to test a new idea related to learning, as a means of contributing a theory or instructional method to the field of education. Because of the costs involved for conducting a study, researchers often find sponsors as a source of funding. Keep in mind, though, that there is general perception that the involvement of a sponsor may create bias related to the outcome or results of the study. When you read the report, carefully review the sponsorship statement and evaluate the potential for bias before utilizing the conclusions as support for your assignment.

If you conduct an Internet search and find a website that contains information you may utilize, you can further evaluate the source for credibility by examining its domain suffix. Sources that are generally more credible will be educational or governmental websites because they are sponsored domains, or domains with restricted access. Here is a list of the most common domain suffixes:
•    .com (personal and commercial websites)
•    .gov (governmental websites)
•    .org (organizational websites, typically nonprofit organizations)
•    .net (network websites)
•    .edu (educational websites)
•    .mil (military websites)

Objectively Evaluate Information Contained Within the Source

The final step for the evaluation of a source is to examine the content or information from an objective perspective. It is possible to have a credible author and source, but still not have information that is useful for your assignments. The following criteria will help you assess the information provided within a source:
•    Does the information appear to be accurate and error-free?
•    Does the author support their article with credible sources? (Review the reference list if one is provided)
•    How current is the information? What is the year of publication? (While historical and factual information won’t change, the content of the article itself needs to be current)
•    Is the information relevant to the topic you are writing about?
•    What is the intended audience of the article or what is the purpose of the article? For example, was the article written to summarize findings, provide a source of entertainment, or discuss the subject from a scholarly perspective?
•    How would you rate the quality of the information provided? Is it presented in a logical matter with a reasonable conclusion?
•    Does the article present primary information (direct from a source) or secondary information (sources that the author has interpreted)?
•    If the article is found on a website, is the website current and updated? Who is the publisher of the website? Is there any potential bias for the information provided?

Finding credible sources for your assignments is not a task that should be done too quickly because making an assessment of a source requires examining several factors. An initial, perceptual assessment of the information is not enough to know if it will be appropriate for an academic assignment. When you utilize a source in your assignment, it should support your original thoughts and critical analysis of the subject. That requires the use of sources that are written by credible authors and published by a credible source, along with information that is relevant, current, and accurate. As you utilize the steps provided above, you’ll find it is a strategy that'll result in well-developed papers and postings.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Rachel Frank/Corbis


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