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Developing Research Skills: Be Discerning

The purpose of this guide is to introduce you to information literacy skills (superpowers) through the use of an existing research assignment so that you will feel more confident and equipped in college research activities.

Identify Reliable Sources

You will be a superhero when you can compare reliable and unreliable sources!

Now that you have planned a search for information and conducted some searches in library databases or on the Web, you will need to look at those sources more critically.  Not all information is suitable for every research question.  Freely available web pages and websites need a closer look before including them in a research paper or making important decisions based on their advice or content. 

In this section of the Information League, you will learn basic source evaluation questions, learn about "fake news" detection, and have an opportunity to complete a PDF form to evaluate sources for your research assignment.

Video Tutorials (2)

Evaluating Sources for Credibility

Evaluating Sources for Credibility (NCSU Libraries)

 

 

 

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How to Choose Your News

How to Choose Your News (TED-Ed)


 

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Evaluating Web Sources

Not all information presented on the Web is researched, subjected to oversight, or suitable for college research.  Here are some questions you can ask of your source to determine whether the content is trustworthy or suitable for your research.  Identifying the answers to these basic signs of credibility will guide you in looking critically and realistically at your sources.

1. WHO wrote it?
Is there an author listed as the creator of the article, page or site? Can you contact them? Do they list their credentials?  Find out more information by and about the author by doing a search on the Internet with the author’s name. You could also search within the library’s databases to look for other articles by or about the author.

An article is more reliable and credible if an author is identified.  Not all credible sources of information have to have a specific author listed; for instance, a basic information page about an organization or document issued from a government agency.  However, scholarly content is always authored and researched. 

2. WHO owns it?
Who owns the site and are they reputable? If the site owner is not visible, truncate parts of the URL (web address) to go back to main parts of the site.  For example, this article on emotional intelligence at <https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/the-emotional-intelligence-deficit-how-it-holds-back-so-many-professionals/> is hosted at the The Wharton School (business college) at the University of Pennsylvania at <www.wharton.upenn.edu>.  If you cannot tell very much from the site owner by their home page or web address, you can search at https://whois.net for information about the site owner. 

Similar to the question, "Who Wrote It?", the credibility of information is linked to the entity that posted the information.  For example, if a site or publisher posts a medical article about the benefits of a certain medication, but also sells that medication, you might question if they are offering the information to sell more products or can be trusted to conduct unbiased medical research.  You might still be able to use the webpage article in your research, but will need to find other confirming sources.

3. WHO links to it?
Is this site listed in a subject directory? Take a look the MCC Library's Research Guides , Austin Community College's Research Guides, or the Library of Congress Virtual Reference Shelf.  Do other sites link to the article, website or author's other publications?  You can check for a scholarly article's usage by going to Google Scholar.  Search for the article you are evaluating and then click on "Cited by #."  This will allow you to evaluate your scholarly article sources based on it's impact with other scholars.

4. WHAT is on the page to add to or take away from the value of the information?
Be wary of 1) offensive language or photos, 2) sponsored ads, 3) poor design of the site, 4) required fees or registration, except for scholarly journals and journal sites, 5) no identification of sources used or cited, or 6) the site or page lacking identification of the author, site owner, or contact information for the author or owner.

5. WHEN was the information created or updated?
Is there a publication date given? Often a page may have been updated even if the information included on the page was not. Look for dates associated with the publication of the information or article.  This is particularly important with subject areas in which currency of information is critical (medicine, nursing, technology, etc).

6. WHERE is this site?
While this is no longer a hard and fast rule, some Internet domains provide higher quality information than others. Organizational (org), governmental (gov) or educational sites (edu) will have more oversight in the content hosted.  Is the page or site part of a blog, discussion forum, or other site providing user opinions rather than scholarly analysis?

7. WHY did the owner or author publish the information?
What are their intentions? Is the purpose to give a balanced and researched view of a topic, inform, educate, persuade, or train? Is the purpose to entertain, sell, misinform, sensationalize, promote a certain bias agenda or fictionalize? Is the content opinion, personal narrative, verifiable fact, or researched information?

8. HOW can the information on the web page or site benefit your paper or project?
Is the content from the source appropriate for your assignment?  Is the article long enough for your informational needs? Are you being asked for scholarly analysis, factual reporting of events, evidence for a research claim, statistics, or general information?  Make sure the reading level, sources, and information are all suitable for your paper or project.

Beware of Fake or False Information

"Fake News" is not a new phenomenon.  Instructors and librarians have long been telling students to carefully evaluate information that they intend to share or use in their research.  In recent years, there has been an increase in the sharing of inaccurate information and concern about its impact on public opinion.  Whether such news is intentionally misleading or due to inadequate fact checking, you should carefully examine all sources of information both in college research and in your daily life.

1.  Click-bait: These are sensationalized article titles that are misleading.  The authors and publishers intentionally use headlines that "bait" readers into clicking their link, only to find that the article was all or partly false, satirical, exaggerated, taken out of context, or unsubstantiated.  Increasingly, we have seen articles posted on social media and discovered firsthand or witnessed the impact of viral fake or incorrect information.  Examples are Breitbart.com (Screenshot) and WND.com (Screenshot). 

2.  Some articles report unreliable, unsubstantiated, or potentially misleading information deliberately to stir up controversy or conspiracy.  Often the sources are not cited, the text is presented in all caps, improper images and ads are displayed and hateful name-calling is used. An example is 70 News (screenshot), which is also full of click-bait headlines.

3.   Fake or Satirical: These articles are deliberately fake or satirical to mislead or entertain.  Some sites will take real news captions and attach false stories.  Some sites are designed for satire and entertainment and can be useful to educate yourself about media literacy and reading with critical thinking. The Onion, The Babylon Bee, and World News Daily Report publish outlandish fake news for entertainment. 

4.  Even some reputable sources headline with titles meant to generate use or make mistakes in their reporting.  Sometimes, wrong information simply gets through to the public, even when the reporters are checking sources and editors are proofing content.  Statistical information published in an article, even by a reputable source, maybe sensationalized or misrepresented by other sources or the publisher may give a catchy title that doesn't tell the whole story. This is not deliberate fake news or intentional deception, but due to human error or the desire to attract readers. An example can be seen from USA Today in November 2016 (screenshot).

Because of these possible conditions, use caution when citing or sharing articles.  If a headline or story seems outrageous, take a closer look.  Be very skeptical of article titles that start with a number and some sensational wording or revealing of a secret (ex: "10 Actors You Didn't Know were Dead" or "12 Ways to Ruin Your Children"). 

Remember that misinformation or "fake news" is not specific to a certain political side.  Do not assume that just because you agree with an article and its ideology, that fact-checking is unnecessary.  And don't assume that because you disagree with an author or article, within it exists inaccurate information (this is known as confirmation bias).  Doing further research on your own through mainstream news sources, the library databases, TruthorFiction.com, FactCheck.org, and Snopes.com is helpful in order to recognize false, incomplete, or misleading news stories.

Sources consulted:

Dreid, N. (2016, November 17). Meet the Professor Who's Trying to Help You Steer Clear of Clickbait. Retrieved December 05, 2016, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Meet-the-Professor-Who-s/238441

Valenza, J. (2016, November 26). Truth, truthiness, triangulation [Web log post]. Retrieved December 5, 2016, from http://blogs.slj.com/neverendingsearch/2016/11/26/truth-truthiness-triangulation-and-the-librarian-way-a-news-literacy-toolkit-for-a-post-truth-world/

Zimdars, M. (2016). False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical. Retrieved December 05, 2016, from https://docs.google.com/document/d/10eA5-mCZLSS4MQY5QGb5ewC3VAL6pLkT53V_81ZyitM/preview

See also: Kessler, Glenn. "The Fact Checker's guide for detecting fake news." Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Nov. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2016/11/22/the-fact-checkers-guide-for-detecting-fake-news

Kiely, Eugene, and Lori Robertson. “How to Spot Fake News.” FactCheck.org, FactCheck.org, 19 Dec. 2016, www.factcheck.org/2016/11/how-to-spot-fake-news/.

Now You Try It!

If you have already searched for some research sources for your assignment, evaluate one of those sources using the following pdf form.  In the end, you should have a better perspective on the suitability of that source. If you have not yet found a web or database source, do that now using the super skills of strategic searching that you acquired during the previous section of Research and Information Literacy.  After locating a source, use the evaluation form below.