The first element to investigate is the credentials of whoever created the information. Do they know what they're talking about? Do they have experience or expertise in the subject they're discussing? We should investigate by asking questions like these:
Google can help us answer these questions. Plug in the author's name and see what comes up. University faculty are usually listed on the university's website. Crackpots often have someone out there pointing out that they are a crackpot (of course, we have to evaluate the person pointing that out, too!).
If the information we are investigating doesn't tell us who the author or creator is, that's a bad sign.
We should investigate not only the individual author, but also the publication or website publishing them:
Remember that the author or creator of the information you are investigating can't be an expert on any old thing. They must be knowledgeable on the topic they're speaking about. This point is surprisingly often missed!
Quick example: Senator Arlen Specter was doubtless an expert on various political matters, but when he tried to illustrate a political point with a historical example, he was rather out of his depth. Can you spot the error?
-Senator Arlen Specter, July 17, 2006, Press Conference Regarding Stem Cell Research Legislation
The answer? Galileo was placed under house arrest for insisting that the earth revolved around the sun (without proof, but that's another issue). Everyone knew the earth was round. The ancient Greeks even measured its circumference with surprising accuracy, by measuring the angles of noonday shadows.
Mistakes are often made when someone has a political point to make — on every side of the political spectrum.
The highest level of trustworthiness for most academic subjects is found in scholarly sources, as opposed to popular sources. Scholarly articles are written by and for scholars, i.e. experts and researchers in a field. Popular sources are written for the general population.
Scholarly usually, but not always, means peer-reviewed. Peer-reviewed means that a panel of peers — other experts in the field — review an author's paper to decide if it is worth publishing. If they decide that the author has done good work and that the paper advances the knowledge of the field, they sign off on the paper. (Often they ask for revisions first.)
Peer review has it's drawbacks too: it's slow, it can be expensive, and reviewers are human and their judgment is subjective, and can vary widely from reviewer to reviewer. The system is imperfect, but that's because humans are imperfect. But the system usually works well, and is the best we have at filtering good and bad information in academic scholarship. So if your professor wants you to find a peer-reviewed source, that's why.
So how do you know if a source is peer-reviewed? Check out the Scholarly vs Popular Sources Tutorial to learn more.
If we're writing an evaluation about a piece of information we found, we should be clear when discussing credentials. See the examples below for strong and weak evaluation examples.
Weak: "The results and data mentioned in this study are credible because the study was done by one of the reliable cybersecurity companies."
This is an okay start, but this evaluation would be better if we name that company and give a reason why they're a credible source of information on the topic.
Strong: "This source is credible because it's a peer-reviewed article and the author is a professor of computer science at Stanford University."
A peer-reviewed article is a good source to use because it's already been through a process of review before being published. Peer-reviewed articles often give us information about the author's credentials, which we can include in our evaluation.
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