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Using and Evaluating Sources

This guide explains how to use sources to support your ideas and how to evaluate them to make sure you're using the best sources for your purposes

If you ever had a writing assignment or term paper, you were probably told you had to evaluate your sources, especially internet sources, and probably were given some sort of rules or methodology to use. If you Google “how to evaluate sources,” you’ll find thousands of different ways to do it. But which one should you use? Why do we need to evaluate our sources in the first place? For that matter, why do we even need to use sources? Google is no real help for any of these questions--there are thousands of answers. This guide will explain why and how to use sources.

Using Sources Is Intuitive

How many of you as a child said something like “Billy’s mom lets him stay up late!” That’s using a source--in this case Billy. You’re using that source to help convince your mom to let you stay up late. By using that source, you’re showing that staying up late is not just some whim of yours; your friends do it and, not only that, they do it with a parent’s approval. If Billy’s mom lets Billy stay up late, why shouldn't your mom be as reasonable as Billy’s and let you stay up late too? We’ve all done it, right?

So, how did that work out for you? I can hear my mom’s response even now: “I suppose if Billy’s mom let him jump off a cliff, you’d want to do that too!”

Evaluating Sources Is Learned

That’s where evaluating sources comes in. Never mind all the fancy rubrics and acronyms. Evaluating a source is nothing more complicated than choosing the source that is most likely to convince your audience of the point you’re trying to make. We quickly learn what works and what doesn't. What Billy says may carry a lot of weight in my immediate group of friends, but not so much with other kids at school. They may be more attuned to other kids, or perhaps social media or other external sources.

So, for example, as you get a bit older, you may be trying to talk a group of friends into seeing a new movie. In this case, you might use an external source like a review by a professional film critic: "it got four stars in the Tribune!" However, unless your friends are real film geeks, that probably won't mean much to them. Instead, the opinion of a mutual friend is likely to carry more weight: "Khatia saw it and said it was awesome." However, if you're trying to convince your parents to take you, the Tribune's review will probably work better than Khatia's.

Notice how we name the source in these examples, whether it's the Trib or Khatia. This is very important. Without naming the source, your friends or parents won't know where you got the information or if that info is worthwhile. Naming a source is also called citing a source, particularly when writing. For more information on citing sources, see our Citing Sources guide.

Convincing Figures of Authority

Convincing authority figures is always a steeper learning curve than convincing our friends or peers. It can be hard to put ourselves in their shoes to understand what they will accept or reject and why. By “authority figure” I mean basically anybody who has the power to accept or reject our work or ideas. As children this would mainly be our parents and teachers. As adults, authority figures would include college professors, dissertation committees, bosses, potential employers, bankers, clients, etc. The stakes are also higher as adults. Instead of just getting to stay up late or see the latest movie, we’re talking about getting a passing grade, successfully defending your dissertation, getting or keeping a job, or negotiating a business loan. Yet all too often, we approach these arguments the same way we did as children: learning as we go from our mistakes.
The techniques presented in this guide should provide you with a solid grounding for convincing these types of authority figures that you know what you’re talking about.