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Communications: Evaluating Information

A guide to communications resources.

Evaluating Sources

Whether you're reading a social media post, an article from the New York Times, or a peer-reviewed research article, you always need to evaluate your source. When you evaluate a source, you are checking to see if the information is current, accurate, balanced, and relevant to the topic you're exploring. This page will give you tools to evaluate different types of sources.

Evaluating Scholarly Sources

The easiest way to evaluate an academic article is to go through each section and answer some basic questions about who is conducting the research and how it has been conducted. The questions below can help you evaluate the different sections of an academic article. If you prefer more visual content, scroll down and view the infographic that contains the same information.

Authors: Type author names and institutions into a search engine to learn about their academic background and expertise. Do they seem qualified to write about the topic? Have they written other articles or books on this topic or related topics?

Publishing Journal: The publishing information incudes the name of the journal the article was published in. Type the journal name into a search engine to learn more about the journal, including the type of research they specialize in publishing. Does the research in this article fall under the scope of what they usually publish?

Abstract: Before reading the article, read the abstract. An abstract will often include information on how researchers performed the study and collected data, as well as some preliminary conclusions. Will the information in this article help you answer your research question?

Research Questions, Objective, or Hypotheses: Somewhere near the beginning of the article the authors should provide their research questions, an objective, or hypotheses. Do their research goals seem reasonable? Do they contain any biased assumptions? Keep these goals in mind when you get to the methodology section where authors will explain how they designed their research to answer these questions or test their hypotheses.

Methodology: The methods or methodology section will go in depth about how researchers designed the study and collected data. Sometimes this section might go by a different name, such as "data collection," "research design," or something similar. There are lots of factors to consider when evaluating methodology. Are these the best methods to answer the research questions? Do the methods seem ethical? How large is the sample size? If the study involves humans, does it have diverse participants? Are there factors that could affect the results the authors aren't considering?

Results: The results section is where the authors share the results of the study. Look at charts and graphics to make sure they are not deliberately misleading (ex: graphs that don't start at zero). Can you draw any conclusions just by looking at the data?

Discussion & Conclusion: The discussion & conclusion are sometimes separate sections, and other times they are combined under one heading. These sections will explain the results, talk about the limitations of the study, and make recommendations for moving forward, including suggestions for further research. Ask yourself if you agree with the authors' conclusions. Do the authors acknowledge the limits of the study? Does the conclusion contradict other studies you've read? If yes, which study do you think is more accurate, and why?

References, Bibliography, or Works Cited: Every scholarly article will have a reference, bibliography, or works cited section. This is where the authors cite the other research they reference in their article. Is most of the research they cite fairly recent? Do they cite diverse authors? Are they citing from well respected academic and popular sources?

Evaluating Popular Sources

When evaluating popular sources online, one of the best strategies you can use is called lateral reading. With lateral reading, you don't spend very much time on the website itself, but instead explore the rest of the web to see what other people are saying about the source.

Lateral reading asks you to consider:

  • What are reliable sources that you trust saying about the source that you are viewing?
  • Is there a Wikipedia page on the organization that published the source? How does it categorize the organization? Do other sources on the internet also categorize the organization in this way?
  • What can you find out about who founded the site and how it is funded?
  • Can you confirm the information you found in the source using other reliable sources? If you can't find five other trusted sources that report the same findings, that's an indication the source may not be very reliable.

View the video below for more information on lateral reading.

Practice Reading Laterally

One of the organizations below is a reliable source, and one is not. Use lateral reading to determine whether the American Academy of Pediatrics or the American College of Pediatricians is a trusted source to share information from.