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Social Work Research Guide

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Evaluating Sources & Critical Thinking

The Internet contains millions of web pages and more information than a single person could ever process. People are very reliant on digital content for their news and entertainment. When people get their information from online news outlets, social media, and online publications, it can be difficult to identify biased or inaccurate sources. You may need to review multiple sources to confirm information or seek out original sources to verify information. 

Questions to consider when evaluating your sources

  • Is it relevant to your topic?
  • Are there clues that tell you the author is an expert on the content?
  • Does the information advocate for a particular stance or from a specific angle?
  • Who created this information?
  • Is there evidence for any claims made or facts presented?
  • Are there links to original sources or references?
  • Why was this information created?
  • Whose voice does this information represent and amplify?
  • Is the information timely, or does it need to be? Is it historical information?
  • Who is the audience the content was written for? Is it overly simplified or overly complicated?
  • Can you find other reliable sources that corroborate the information?
  • Are there better sources that exist on this topic?


Understanding how false news can spread

Tavlin, N.. (August 27, 2015). How false news can spread - Noah Tavlin. TED-Ed.

How Algorithms Lead to Oppression

Scholarly Versus Academic Sources

The Internet and the Library make it is easy to find information, but it is more difficult to identify sources you can rely on. Evaluate your sources carefully to ensure you've selected material that is trustworthy and appropriate for your assignment.

The type of source you need will depend on:
  • Information need: How you intend to use a source will help you determine the kind of authority and/or credibility you give a source.
  • Information source context: Where it came from, its audience, format, and how it is used--help determine its authority and appropriateness.

Scholarly Academic Publications

  • Written by an expert in the field of study (an academic or trained specialist)
  • Date of publication is provided
  • Publisher may be Colleges/Universities, professional associations, scholarly publishers + research institutes
  • Purpose of the article or publication is to report on experiments, theories, case studies + other research
  • Editing is conducted through the peer review process, by experts in the field
  • Sources are used in the author's research are cited in a reference list or footnotes

Popular Publications

  • Written by those without expertise in the field (a member of the public or journalist) or no author is stated
  • Popular publications, especially WWW publications, often do not give a date of publication
  • Published by commercial for-profit publishers or members of the public
  • Purpose of the publication is to sell advertised products, inform, promote a point of view or entertain
  • Review of content is by a generalist (a magazine editor) or no review
  • Sources are rarely cited or are inaccurate Other Accurate spelling + grammar, few advertisements, logical + well written Spelling + grammar errors may occur, many advertisements, poor or variable writing quality

Diagram of how a timeline can affect the type of information you may want to use

Western University Libraries. (n.d.). Lesson 10: Information need and context. 

Strategies to Evaluate Information

What do they all have in common?

  • What do they say about audience? Author? Perspective/bias? Credibility? Date? Publication Details? Relevance?

ACT UP - Evaluating Sources through a Lens of Social Justice

In a world that is increasingly confronting the systemic inequalities inherent in society, Dawn Stahura from Salem State University developed a method of evaluating sources called ACT UP.

A - Author

  • Who wrote the resource?
  • Investigate the author. Background information is important.
  • Do they have any conflict of interests due to any of their organizational affiliations. Conflicts of interests are bias
  • Can't find an author? That may be problematic/\.

C - Currency

  • When was the source written?
  • Is the information/ sources drawn on in the source current?
  • Can you locate the last time a website was updated?
  • Is the website over a year out of date? Depending on your topic that may be problematic.

T - Truth

  • How accurate is the source?
  • Is the source poorly edited?
  • Can you verify the information in other sources?
  • Is the information in the source written in sensational, outrageous language? This may reveal the author's bias.
  • Just because the source is taken from a "reputable" site does not mean that that it is inherently accurate.

U - Unbiased

  • There is no such this as an unbiased source. We all have biases.
  • If an author is up front with their viewpoint or intentions don't shy away. It is more concerning when a creator attempts to conceal their intentions.
  • How was the research funded? The outcome of the research may have been skewed depending on where the money is derived from.
  • Remember you have your own implicit biases as well. Are you choosing only sources that fulfill your confirmation bias? You may be trying to prove a specific thesis but this does not mean you should selectively cite sources that only confirm your initial thoughts. 

P - Privilege 

  • Historically white, male researchers and scholars have been privileged in academic publishing.
  • Whose voices are missing or being silenced from the scholarly conversation?
  • Remember, scholarly sources are not the only worthwhile sources. Take your time to locate other mediums that may be easier for marginalized voices to publish their research. Books, blogs, zines, open access journals are all worthwhile expressions of scholarly information as well.
  • Remember your own privilege. Access is a form of privilege. Is this resource behind a paywall or require an academic affiliation? How does this effect the research of others who do not have your access?

This portion of this guide on "ACT UP"  has been adapted from Salem State University Library. "ACT UP" and the ACT UP Infographic were created by Dawn Stahura, Research & Instruction Librarian for Health & Science - Salem State University.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The SIFT Method for Evaluating Sources

The SIFT method was created by Mike Caulfield, a researcher from Stanford University. It allows you to use a critical eye for evaluating online sources and encourages people to use other sources to test the validity of reliability of information.

Stop​ - Before you read something and especially before you share something, ask yourself, Do you recognize the source?​ What kind of emotions is this resource bringing up for me? 

Investigate the source​ - Consider the source’s expertise, motivation, and privilege. Expertise may mean different things depending on the topic and the context. In some cases, it means educational credentials, professional experience, etc. In other cases, personal experience with a topic is more valuable ​Consider the source’s expertise, motivation, and privilege. Why is the author sharing this information?​ Is it for financial gain?​ To advance their career?​ To inform the public?​ To entertain the public?​ Who benefits the most from this information being shared?​ Whose voices are being amplified in this resource?​ “Nothing about us without us”: If the topic is about a particular community, is it written by someone with lived experience in that community?​ Consider your own privilege and biases, too: ​How many sources by women, IBPOC, and other marginalized ​groups are you reading?​ 

Find better coverage​ - What other coverage is available on the same topic?​ Most big news stories that are true get covered by multiple major news outlets.​ Keep track of trusted news sources and build up your own library of trusted sources.​ Use fact-checking sites like to investigate claims being made. For images, you can do a reverse image search

Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context - Going to the original source allows for a more complete and accurate picture of the issue.​ Your goal is to find the first person that reported on the topic and, ideally, witnessed the topic themselves. ​When reading online sources, pay attention to who they quote as a source and see if you can find more information. ​If there are hyperlinks in the source that point toward original studies, click on those to follow the chain to the original source. ​If there is a bibliography, open up the original reporting sources listed.  ​Google key terms (or the actual terms) if the source has no mention of the origin​. After you've found the original claim, quote, finding, or news story, ask yourself if it was fairly and accurately represented in the media that you initially came across. ​

Lateral Reading Infographic Guide

Lateral Reading

UofL Research Assistance & Instruction. (June 26, 2020). Lateral reading.

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