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Evaluating Online Sources: A Guide: Introduction and Definitions

A Guide for online source evaluation


This guide is intended to help you evaluate online sources which is an important part of information literacy. Generally speaking, online sources are defined as sources found outside of our Libraries website and databases. The information presented here is designed to help you determine whether an online source (i.e. website, blog, YouTube video, social media post, etc.) is credible (or not).

Determining a source credibility is not always easy. It becomes more complicated as you consider the many factors that come into play. Credibility comes down to a few, sometimes-hard-to-answer questions:

  • What is the compelling research question you are trying to answer?
  • Who or what authored this source and what is his/her/their background/biases?
  • Where did they get their information? 



"The set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information. . . . Students must demonstrate competencies in formulating research questions and in their ability to use information as well as an understanding of ethical and legal issues surrounding information. This requires a campus culture of collaboration and focus on student learning."

-- From the Association of College and Research Libraries' (a division of the American Library Association) Information Literacy Glossary

A research question provides structure for research. Your thesis statement can be thought of as the sentence answer to this question; the rest of your paper or project is an explanation of that answer. Elements of good research questions include:

  • Parameters (boundaries). For example, "Why did witchcraft trials stop?" is a good start to a research question, but "How did agricultural developments in seventeenth century England lead to the decline of witchcraft trials in that country?" is stronger because it contains more parameters.
  • Is controversial, meaning that there are multiple possible answers.
  • Is interesting to you!

Your research question will help you determine what sources to use.

bias, noun: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair

bias, verb: cause to feel or show inclination or prejudice for or against someone or something

A biased source means that the creator has a view of the issue at hand and therefore has an effect on how the source is created/presented. Everyone has biases, and someone with a bias can still write a worthwhile source, but it is up to you to consider how much of a bias is present. Be aware of the biases inherent when the information presented contains an agenda or is trying to sell something. 

Peer review is a process scholarly articles go through before they are published. Scholarly articles are sent to other experts in the field (peers) to ensure that they contain high-quality, original research important to the field. This is a measure of quality control other types of literature don't go through. 



This Guide is adapted from Rowan University's Campbell Library: Evaluating Online Sources: A Toolkit, and University of Texas Libraries: Evaluate Sources (both are under Creative Commons License). 

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Karen Brunner
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