Evaluating Sources | Methods & Examples

The sources you use are an important component of your research. It’s important to evaluate the sources you’re considering using, in order to:

  • Ensure that they’re credible
  • Determine whether they’re relevant to your topic
  • Assess the quality of their arguments

You should have a clear idea of your own research question or topic and think critically when evaluating sources.

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Evaluating a source’s credibility

Evaluating the credibility of a source is an important way of sifting out misinformation and determining whether you should use it in your research. Useful approaches include the CRAAP test and lateral reading.

CRAAP test

One of the best ways to evaluate source credibility is the CRAAP test. This stands for:

  • Currency: Does the source reflect recent research?
  • Relevance: Is the source related to your research topic?
  • Authority: Is it a respected publication? Is the author an expert in their field?
  • Accuracy: Does the source support its arguments and conclusions with evidence?
  • Purpose: What is the author’s intention?

How you evaluate a source using these criteria will depend on your subject and focus. It’s important to understand the types of sources and how you should use them in your field of research.

Lateral reading

Lateral reading is the act of evaluating the credibility of a source by comparing it to other sources. This allows you to:

  • Verify evidence
  • Contextualise information
  • Find potential weaknesses

If a source is using methods or drawing conclusions that are incompatible with other research in its field, it may not be reliable.

Example: Lateral reading
You’re reading an article on rates of immigration into the US. The source cites specific figures as evidence that immigration is at an all-time high.Rather than taking these figures at face value, you decide to determine the accuracy of the source’s claims by cross-checking them with official statistics such as census reports and figures compiled by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics.

This way, you can assess whether the source is representing the data accurately, or cherry-picking to give a misleading picture of the situation.

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Evaluating a source’s relevance

How you evaluate the relevance of a source will depend on your topic, and on where you are in the research process. Preliminary evaluation helps you to pick out relevant sources in your search, while in-depth evaluation allows you to understand how they’re related.

Preliminary evaluation

As you cannot possibly read every source related to your topic, you can use preliminary evaluation to determine which sources might be relevant. This is especially important when you’re surveying a large number of sources (e.g., in a literature review or systematic review).

One way to do this is to look at paratextual material, or the parts of a work other than the text itself.

  • Look at the table of contents to determine the scope of the work.
  • Consult the index for key terms or the names of important scholars.

You can also read abstracts, prefaces, introductions, and conclusions. These will give you a clear idea of the author’s intentions, the parameters of the research, and even the conclusions they draw.

Preliminary evaluation is useful as it allows you to:

  • Determine whether a source is worth examining in more depth
  • Quickly move on to more relevant sources
  • Increase the quality of the information you consume

While this preliminary evaluation is an important step in the research process, you should engage with sources more deeply in order to adequately understand them.

Note: When using databases or search engines, you can search keywords using Boolean operators and sort results by ‘relevance’. This will provide results based on the article’s title or how many times a keyword appears in a source. While this is a good first step, it can’t tell you for sure if a source is actually relevant to your research. You should carefully read the source to determine this.

In-depth evaluation

Begin your in-depth evaluation with any landmark studies in your field of research, or with sources that you’re sure are related to your research topic.

As you read, try to understand the connections between the sources. Look for:

  • Key debates: What topics or questions are currently influencing research? How does the source respond to these key debates?
  • Major publications or critics: Are there any specific texts or scholars that have greatly influenced the field? How does the source engage with them?
  • Trends: Is the field currently dominated by particular theories or research methods? How does the source respond to these?
  • Gaps: Are there any oversights or weaknesses in the research?

Even sources whose conclusions you disagree with can be relevant, as they can strengthen your argument by offering alternative perspectives.

Evaluating a source’s arguments

Every source should contribute to the debate about its topic by taking a clear position. This position and the conclusions the author comes to should be supported by evidence from direct observation or from other sources.

Most sources will use a mix of primary and secondary sources to form an argument. It is important to consider how the author uses these sources. A good argument should be based on analysis and critique, and there should be a logical relationship between evidence and conclusions.

To assess an argument’s strengths and weaknesses, ask:

  • Does the evidence support the claim?
  • How does the author use evidence? What theories, methods, or models do they use?
  • Could the evidence be used to draw other conclusions? Can it be interpreted differently?
  • How does the author situate their argument in the field? Do they agree or disagree with other scholars? Do they confirm or challenge established knowledge?

Situating a source in relation to other sources (lateral reading) can help you determine whether the author’s arguments and conclusions are reliable and how you will respond to them in your own writing.

Frequently asked questions

How can I tell which sources are relevant to my research?

As you cannot possibly read every source related to your topic, it’s important to evaluate sources to assess their relevance. Use preliminary evaluation to determine whether a source is worth examining in more depth.

This involves:

What is lateral reading?

Lateral reading is the act of evaluating the credibility of a source by comparing it with other sources. This allows you to:

  • Verify evidence
  • Contextualise information
  • Find potential weaknesses
What makes a source credible?

A credible source should pass the CRAAP test and follow these guidelines:

  • The information should be up to date and current.
  • The author and publication should be a trusted authority on the subject you are researching.
  • The sources the author cited should be easy to find, clear, and unbiased.
  • For a web source, the URL and layout should signify that it is trustworthy.
What is the CRAAP test?

The CRAAP test is an acronym to help you evaluate the credibility of a source you are considering using. It is an important component of information literacy.

The CRAAP test has five main components:

  • Currency: Is the source up to date?
  • Relevance: Is the source relevant to your research?
  • Authority: Where is the source published? Who is the author? Are they considered reputable and trustworthy in their field?
  • Accuracy: Is the source supported by evidence? Are the claims cited correctly?
  • Purpose: What was the motive behind publishing this source?

Scholarly sources are written by experts in their field and are typically subjected to peer review. They are intended for a scholarly audience, include a full bibliography, and use scholarly or technical language. For these reasons, they are typically considered credible sources.

Popular sources like magazines and news articles are typically written by journalists. These types of sources usually don’t include a bibliography and are written for a popular, rather than academic, audience. They are not always reliable and may be written from a biased or uninformed perspective, but they can still be cited in some contexts.

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Eoghan Ryan

Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.