How to Evaluate Sources

Locating and citing sources that evidence claims made, qualify any research results, hypotheses creation, research questions development  and idea formulation is possibly the most important part of an essay or any other academic piece of writing, without which an essay or any other piece of writing will appear to lack substance and appear to have stolen ideas from other sources. Evaluating sources is an important process that includes evaluating the content and the author based on the following criteria:

Accuracy Reliability Validity Relevance

Accuracy refers to the correctness of information within any source, and any sources referenced within the source. Accuracy of information is related to reliability: the more accurate the source, the more reliable the source. Access to accurate information is important because an essay or any other piece of academic writing should not be produced through reading inaccurate, subjective writings as this will lead to essays that themselves contain incorrect information.

Reliability of information refers to how accurate the information is and the frequency of which similar results or patterns of discussion appear in other similar research. Reliability can be measured through comparing the results and discussions with other similar resources and through determining the credentials and philosophy of the author.  If similar results or discussions can be found, then those original results and discussions can be viewed as reliable; however, any mathematical or logical flaws, such as inconsistency with results and patterns of discussions, then the reliability is reduced therefore rendering the source as less trustworthy.  Reliability can also be a part of validity: if a piece of research or claim cannot be tested, then it cannot be viewed as very reliable.  Any research or investigation needs to be described so that the results can be reproduced; the results and methodology must therefore be complete and well defined.   Students need to seek sources that are reliable so that they can used to evidence the reliability and accuracy of ideas and claims presented in the essay.

Validity refers to how testable the methodology of a source is and the likelihood of being able to produce the same set of results if the research was to be repeated. A source that is lacking explanation of its methodology and explanations of how the results were obtained is lacking validity, therefore lacking reliability and therefore accuracy of the results are questioned. It is important for students to reference valid sources so that the claims and ideas in their essays  can be tracked back to testable research to increase  the essay’s validity and reliability.  

Relevance is subjective as this refers to how relevant a source is to the topic and context of an essay.  Relevance is important because sources that are not relevant to an essay should not be used as they can cause an essay to be off topic; however, sources from different subjects can be referenced if the essay or other piece of research has to take an interdisciplinary approach.

Published books, edited books, peer reviewed sources such as academic journals as well as scientific and Government sources and websites are accurate because they have been peer reviewed for correctness of information; reliable because of the peer review process, the quality of academic sources used to back claims and idea generation, and that the source has been produced by an expert; and valid because of a well described and formulated research methodology and results that are testable and reproducible. Web based sources, unless they are from academic, scientific and Government sources, should be bought into question because the accuracy of some sources is questionable if they are based on personal opinion; not reliable because they are not put through a peer review system therefore inaccurate information and ideas might be presented; and invalid because some sources might not describe a well formulated methodology therefore their results cannot be tested.

It is important that in whatever way sources are evaluated never to trust a single source.  The idea of an essay is to create a main theme and, especially if there is a practical element involved, create a hypothesis or research question based on an analysis of current literature; to test, if appropriate, the hypothesis, or investigate the research question; and to create arguments and ideas.  This can only be achieved through evaluating, analysing and using multiple appropriate resources to produce balanced opinions and arguments.