Evaluating sources for relevance, currency, and credibility is one of the most complex tasks you’ll do when working on a research project. Such sources will meet the information needs of your research project and make it possible for you to complete your final product.
In order to evaluate a source, you have to answer three questions about it. The first two are intertwined and answered pretty much at the same time as you’re looking for sources. Then you answer the third question about those sources that you have already decided are relevant and recent enough.
- Is this source relevant to my research question?
- Is this source recent enough (or created in the right time period)?
- Is this a credible source–a source my audience and I should be able to trust?
You should be able to answer “yes” to these three questions about each source you cite for a research project.
TIP: Other Criteria from Your Professor
Don’t forget that you also have to make sure your sources meet any other criteria that your professor may have given you for this assignment. For instance, professors often stipulate that some of your sources have to be scholarly sources or journal articles from a particular database. Professors in the humanities may also say that some of your sources must be primary sources. So make sure you have identified enough of the kind of sources your professor has requested.
It’s important to determine relevance before credibility because no matter how credible a source is, if it’s not relevant to your research question it’s useless to you for this project. By the same token, a source that is not recent enough or not created in the right time period will also be unsuitable for your project, except perhaps for background information that you don’t cite.
You might already be worrying about how long evaluating sources is going to take. So let’s say right off that you won’t have to read all of every source to decide whether it is relevant, current or created in the right time period, and credible. (Later, of course, it will take a closer read to determine what direct quotes, paraphrases, and summaries you may want to use from the sources you have selected. We take that up in Chapter 10, Writing Tips.)
Regardless, our advice is to not begrudge the time you spend evaluating sources. It’s one of the most important things to learn in college—the opportunity to evaluate sources is one of the big reasons your professors assign research projects. And your future employers will expect you to have learned how to do it. For the rest of your professional and personal life, you will be using the critical thinking skills that make choosing the right sources possible. So taking the time to learn those skills is a great investment.
Happily, you’ll also get much faster the more you do it.
ACTIVITY: Evaluation Basics
Making Inferences: Good Enough for Your Purpose?
Sources should always be evaluated relative to your purpose – why you’re looking for information. But because there often aren’t clear-cut answers when you evaluate sources, much of the time it is inferences – educated guesses from available clues – that you have to make about whether a source is relevant, current, and credible.
That’s true even when your purpose is to answer the research question of your research assignment.
Your purpose will dictate:
- What kind of information will help?
- How serious you consider the consequences of making a mistake by using information that turns out to be inaccurate? When the consequences aren’t very serious, it’s easier to decide a source and its information are good enough for your purpose. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for always having accurate information, regardless.
- How hard you’re willing to work to get the credible, timely information that suits your purpose. What you’re learning here will make it easier.
Thus, your standards for relevance and credibility may vary, depending on whether you need, say:
- Information about a personal health problem.
- An image you can use on a poster.
- Evidence to win a bet with a rival in the dorm.
- Dates and times a movie is showing locally.
- A game to have fun with.
- Evidence for your argument in a research project.
For your research assignments or a health problem, the consequences may be serious if you use information that is irrelevant, or out-of-date, or not credible.
Activity: Quick Check
Instructions: Select one answer to each question.