Once you have a good idea about whether the author or creator of a piece of information is reliable, the next step is to investigate the claims they're making. Is the information they're providing accurate?
But here we run into a problem: how do we evaluate whether the claims are good, when we’re not experts in the subject ourselves?
Easy: find experts. And not just one. Using the internet, we can find many experts in a few moments to collect other sites and authors talking about the same subject. Then we use our credentials evaluating skills (see the previous section) to dismiss the self-claimed “experts” who don’t have real expertise in the subject. Finally, we review the remaining, true experts looking for a consensus, if one exists, and seeking to understand the reason behind that consensus. To do this research, we can do something called lateral reading.
When we’re researching a subject, our browser should look something like this: many tabs, with many authors, and we, the researchers, going back and forth checking credentials and claims.
We should also pay attention also to our own knowledge! If something feels wrong or impossible, we ask ourselves why we feel that way. For example, if someone claims to have seen a UFO as a B-52 bomber crewman during World War II, but we know B-52s were invented later than World War II, that’s a pretty big red flag, no matter how professional the website making the claim might seem. Or if we're researching genetic engineering and find ourselves on the very professional website of Masrani Global, which talks about genetically creating dinosaurs, we should pay attention to the little voice that says, “Wouldn’t I have heard about this if it were true?” And then go look and see if anyone else is talking about it, and what they have to say.
We shouldn't take someone's word that "research says" this or that — we should follow their research trail and verify it ourselves! Credible researchers tell where they got their information. Is there a bibliography, citations, or links to back up each claim or argument?
Having sources isn't the end of the investigation, though. Follow those links and ask: are those sources reliable? And do they truly support the claims being made? (Sometimes people put citations in to look scholarly, but the cited articles don't really support their argument.)
Sometimes, a claim in an article will not have a citation backing it up. If this is the case, ask yourself: is this information original research? If so, are the researchers qualified? Was the research peer reviewed?
This, incidentally, is one reason why we cite our sources: to let others verify our research and evaluate our work. All that annoying, detailed work on our reference list has a purpose!
We must also make sure the information we are investigating is current and up-to-date. More recent information is usually better . . . but not always.
For instance, newspapers and websites often contain instant, up-to-date information about a current event. This timeliness is appreciated in the moment. But it is often the later information in magazines, journal articles, or books that is able to bring together more sources to create a broader picture and understanding of what happened.
The importance of being up-to-date also varies depending on the academic discipline. Being current tends to be highly important in fields like science, math, medicine, engineering, or any other field that relies on experimentation for data. On the other hand, disciplines like history, philosophy, or religion don't necessarily require the very latest info, often because their primary data is old in the first place.
We know this intuitively. For example, a website from 2002 about technology trends is probably completely out of date, but a website from the same year about the Civil War might be a great source. That's an easy example. When we're less familiar with the subject we're researching we might have to think consciously about whether the topic requires the latest information or not, and whether our source is a good match.
If we're writing an evaluation about a piece of information we found, we should be clear when discussing claims. See the examples below for strong and weak evaluation examples.
Weak: "The copyright date is this year."
Copyright dates usually cover the entire website and are updated automatically each year, so this is not a good indication of when the particular web page we're looking at was written.
Strong: "This source is reliable because it was published very recently and supported with sources that are up-to-date and which are listed as references."
Great. Both the source we're using and the sources referenced in it are up-to-date.
Weak: "This article is accurate because it relates to my topic."
Not necessarily. Being related to our topic makes it relevant, but that doesn't prove accuracy.
Strong: "This article provides a bibliography showing where it got all the information."
This is a much better indication of accuracy, and if we also look at the dates of the sources in the bibliography, we can determine currency at the same time. An even stronger sentence would be: "This article provides a bibliography showing where it got all the information and most of its sources are from the last 5-8 years."
To continue, click the Objectives tab at the top of this page.