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Finding & Evaluating Sources for Research

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  • 0:01 Defending the Web
  • 1:02 Finding Sources for Research
  • 5:06 Evaluating Sources for…
  • 9:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Suzanne Sweat

Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.

Not everything you read on the Internet is true. This video will help you navigate through different online sources and evaluate the validity of those sources to ensure that you can trust the information you use as part of your research.

Defending the Web

After preventing 16 goals by Belgium during the World Cup, U.S. soccer goalie Tim Howard was named the United States Secretary of Defense. Or was he? An editor gave the credit to Tim Howard on Wikipedia after his remarkable saves, a title that was completely inaccurate. Of course, the information was eventually changed to reflect the name of the true Secretary of Defense.

But how many people read the information before it was changed and believed what it said? We can all laugh at the joke now and praise the editor for giving Tim Howard the honor, but the event shows the problems with the trustworthiness of the Internet. How do you know when what you're reading is the truth?

There are two steps to authenticating the validity of the information you find. First, understand the source of the information, and second, make sure the information is up to P.A.R.

Finding Sources for Research

Let's first look at the sources you find on the Internet. Where you find your information will go a long way in helping you determine if the information can be trusted.

The World Wide Web is an excellent source for beginning your research. Entering in well-chosen keywords for your topic into a search engine such as Google or Yahoo! will yield thousands of source options. The Web will help you find information that can't be found in databases or archives. For example, government agencies are required to publish to the Web and sometimes organizations choose to only publish to the Web. The World Wide Web is also a great place to verify information that you have found in other places.

If you're struggling to find results that are more academic in nature, you can choose to complete an advanced search on the Web. Google Scholar will render scholarly articles, case laws, and other academic resources on your topic.

Of course, not everything you read on the Web is true. General searches often lead us to Web pages that can be overly biased or have untrustworthy sources. These sources are generally not academic in nature and should not be used as part of academic research. Two such sources are blogs and wikis.

Blogs are websites with journal-style entries based on the creator's personal opinions or experiences. Often, the content of these pages is general and does not come from an author with strong credentials in a specific field of study. I have a friend who writes about art, one who writes about healthy food, and one who writes about spirituality. None of them are experts in their fields, but they do provide some unique insights. Although blogs may provide an overview of one side of an argument, they should not be cited as scholarly information.

The story about Tim Howard I shared at the beginning of this video occurred on a wiki, which is a website that gives the general public the right to change information presented on the page. Wikis can be helpful in obtaining general information, but just as in the situation with Tim Howard, the information provided cannot always be trusted. If you find information you think would be helpful in your research, examine the citations at the bottom of the wiki and use those to track down the original information to see if it can be verified.

One thing to remember about search engines is that they only display websites that are indexed, or where the browser's servers have visited and cataloged the information. Websites that haven't been indexed will not be displayed as part of your search. These 'hidden' pages can be accessed through databases.

Databases and archives are collections of published documents, including peer-reviewed articles, books, magazines, and business journals. Databases and archives can provide more trusted sources because the information has gone through editors and peer reviews as part of the publishing process. However, access to most databases and archives costs money and requires a unique search engine. If you are looking for scholarly articles on a topic, local libraries usually have access to some databases and archives that you can use while at their facilities.

Finally, the most exclusive type of sources come from intranets. Intranets are private networks that contain catalogs of information about a business or organization. Intranets are good for obtaining private information and they are easy to use. Unfortunately, some information may be restricted or incomplete. Also, you must be a part of a company or organization to be able to access the intranet.

Evaluating Sources for Research

Once you've found a source, it's important to evaluate the source to see if the information can be trusted. Examine the content of the source to see if it's up to 'P.A.R.' by evaluating the:

  • Purpose
  • Authority
  • Reliability

To examine the purpose of a source, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the source trying to do? Inform, entertain, persuade?
  • Is the information factual or obviously opinionated?
  • Who is the source's target audience?

Understanding why a website, document or article was created will help you understand the motivation of the creator. Entertaining and persuasive sources are more likely to contain biased information. If the language used is inflammatory, the information may be more opinionated than factual. And if the target audience is the general public rather than a group of experts in a particular field, the information may be less academic in nature. Looking at the source's use of language and presentation of information will help you determine whether the content can be trusted.

Let's look at an example and evaluate the purpose:

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