You will need to evaluate each resource you use for research, whether it is an online or print journal article, a website, a book, a newspaper article, or other source that you want to cite.
Use the questions in this guide to analyze materials and to assess how appropriate they will be for your research. Keep in mind that many publications have a particular bias or agenda, which may not be obvious at first glance.
Don't expect to be able to answer every question, all the time, for all information resources you look at. Rather, try to use the questions as a tool to help you look at sources critically.
It seems obvious to state that no one is an expert at everything but it's easy to overlook an author's credentials - especially when reading something online.
Anyone with an internet connection has the potential to publish and distribute information - it's up to you to assess whether or not the materials you find have been written by an authority on the subject.
When assessing authority of an author, ask yourself the following:
Why Question the Author or Source?
If you cannot find an author or an organization connected to a source, be very suspicious. If no one wants to stand behind the work, why should you believe what is written there? Even if you can find an organization or author you still need to be cautious and make sure that the organization and/or author are who they say they are. This may include further research on a particular author or organization.
Some materials that you find will be written by academics, for an academic audience - and their authority, accuracy and scope will be relatively easy to analyze and some will be written for a general audience - with qualities that are equally easy to assess.
For information on deciding whether a source is scholarly, go the the Scholarly Sources guide.
Why Question the Accuracy of a Source?
In the scholarly publication process there are a number of steps journal articles go through called peer-review. When an author submits an article an editor can assign it to two, sometimes as many as four, independent referees, who have similar expertise to the author. The referees review the article and write reports that recommend acceptance, acceptance with minor changes, acceptance with major changes, or rejection. Acceptance rates vary depending on the prestige of the journal, and the entire process can take up to a year.
When you search the web, you will usually find a combination of online scholarly journal articles (many provided to you by UBC Library) and other websites. While individual websites may be written by experts and have some sort of editing process in place, there is no overall system for vetting the web. This lack of review and revision process means that not all Web pages are reliable or valuable. Documents can easily be copied and falsified, or copied with omissions and errors - intentional or accidental.
Data presented in a source may be original work by the author, or may be taken from another source. Just because data is presented in an attractive graph or chart, it doesn't mean it's accurate. For more information on good and bad graphs, see Gallery of Data Visualization.
Why Question the Currency of a Source?
Currency of information is particularly important in the sciences as findings can change drastically in short periods of time. How current the source you are looking at is relevant because you want to know that the information is updated or revised if necessary. On the other hand, some sources may remain authoritative even though they are older. Some older sources are "seminal works" which represent the starting point of a new discipline, or the jumping off point of a new way of looking at a problem. An example is Alan Turing's article, "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis," in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, 237B, 37-72, 14 August 1952.
Why Question the Objectivity of a Web Page?
If advertisements are present look for a relationship between the content of the page and the advertising. Are the advertising and content connected? Ask yourself if the sponsors of the advertisements could have sponsored the research reported.
For example: You find a Web page about a vitamin supplement and the page has advertisements flashing over it, selling the same health supplement. Be cautious and skeptical that the content of the page is without bias. Make sure that the information is factual, not just testimonials of satisfied 'customers'.
Check other sources to verify the information. Look closely at how information is presented. Are opinions clearly stated, or is the information vague? It is acceptable for a page to present a biased opinion, but you as the consumer of the information should know what that opinion is, it should be clear, not hidden.
Why Question the Coverage of a Source?
Be wary of sites like wikis whose content may change rapidly and dramatically.
If you are looking at a website for which there is a print equivalent check to see if the entire work is online. If it is a portion of the work make sure that quotes have not been taken out of context or information has not been misrepresented.
You want to ensure your sources are at the appropriate level for your research, and distinguish between facts and opinions. What is the difference between fact and opinion?
Facts are usually verifiable. Opinions may be based on factual information, but evolve from the interpretation of facts. Most scholarly work will contain both; for example, scientists develop interpretations of data from several points of view successively in their writing. Each point of view expresses the implications of a different assumption. Think of these writings as the interpretations themselves (i.e., a record of the process of interpreting). That record of process is extremely valuable to you when you find and recognize it because it gives you models for your own thoughts (either to emulate or avoid).