Academic writing requires you to build your research upon the work of others—which means referring to scholarly sources. But failing to select the right sources can result in shoddy research and can hurt your credibility. To help you evaluate sources, we suggest using the C.R.A.P. test—that’s Currency, Reliability, Authority, and Purpose. Applying the C.R.A.P. test to your sources will show you which ones are appropriate to use in academic research. None of these filters are foolproof, but they’re a good starting point.
When was the source published?
How credible and applicable is the information?
What do you know about the author(s) of the source?
What is the source trying to accomplish?
Anyone can publish information online and there is no overall fact-checker of the Internet. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the information you find for your assignments or your own personal interests. The ABC3 method of website evaluation highlights important points to consider as you research online sources: Authority, Bias, Content, Currency, and Consistency.
Authority refers to who wrote the information and why you should trust them. Check to see if the author has credentials on the subject matter in terms of a degree and/or extensive experience. This helps verify that they are qualified to write about the topic. The author’s name is typically listed under the title and is commonly hyperlinked. Be aware that sometimes author does not refer only to one person but it can be a group of people, an organization, a company, and so on.
Locating the author:
Bias refers to the level at which the author’s personal beliefs, opinions, or interests are displayed in the information. Is the author trying to make you feel a certain way? Are the author’s words emotionally charged? Can you tell how the author feels about the subject? Also, take a look at the sponsors to see who is funding the information to ensure they are not swaying the objectivity of the message being conveyed. Lastly, consider your own bias or experiences that may impact how you interpret the information you find.
Content refers to the information contained in the article. Does it make sense? Is it appropriate for your intended audience? What was the editing process? How is the information researched? What is the content type (entertainment, education, research, informational, etc.)?
Currency refers to when the information was written or last updated. How regularly is the website maintained?
Many times your instructor will require you to include multiple sources in your research. This is to ensure you have a consensus on your topic and that you are not taking just one source’s word for it. Verify, verify, verify.
Understanding Networked Information
Traditional ways of conveying information – through books, journals, newspapers, broadcast news, film, and even conversations among friends – have been undergoing enormous changes. Technology platforms developed in the past twenty years have changed how people find, share, and create information. This not only affects what information is available, it has shaken up the business models and cultures around information.
Google was not the first internet search engine, but after its founding in 1998 it quickly dominated the market because of its ability to crawl the web quickly and efficiently and because its page rank algorithm provided better relevance ranking than its competitors at the time. Likewise, Facebook (founded in 2004) was not the first social network, but it grew fast and now claims over two billion active users. Both companies have expanded their reach through the acquisition of other companies and growth into new areas. Google invested in mobile phone technologies, artificial intelligence, and purchased YouTube. Facebook bought Instagram, Oculus VR, and WhatsApp, a popular messaging service. Both companies have joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and two Chinese giants, Tencent and Alibaba, on the list of the top ten public corporations by market capitalization. It’s a sign of their power that seven of the top ten are tech companies.
In the meantime, the way news is produced and shared has changed dramatically. Newspapers (the “first draft of history”) have lost subscribers and reporters. Newsrooms employ half the reporters they did in the 1990s, while a number of new digital startups have been created, many of them partisan, some of them satirical, some downright fraudulent. Network news and cable news make segments available on YouTube and news is largely encountered on phone apps and social media. A significant percentage of the advertising revenue news organizations rely on goes to the platforms people increasingly use to discover news – platforms like Google, Facebook, Apple News, and YouTube, companies that don’t produce news but benefit from digital advertising dollars that news producers generate. Books continue to be published in print even as Amazon dominates the e-book and audiobook markets, thanks to acquiring the companies that initially developed them. Even scientific and scholarly journals are going through profound changes. Once only available on paper to those who subscribed, journal production went digital, throwing up paywalls to protect profitable subscriptions. New open access publishing models are under development, but in the meantime impatient activists have launched sites where millions of papers are uploaded in violation of copyright, arguing the prevailing publishing model inhibits sharing knowledge.
It is not only easy for disinformation and propaganda to be created and spread through information networks; it is financially rewarding for creators and for the networks themselves.
Four Moves and Habit
Being able to prove or disprove factual information is not the only way we can assess information or evaluate an argument, but facts are a key building-block of knowledge. Given the volume of factual claims we encounter every day in social media, in news stories, in political speeches, in arguments with That Opinionated Uncle, it may seem impossible to tackle the problem. Who has the time?
What people need most when confronted with a claim that appears to be factual but may not be 100 percent true is simple strategies to get closer to the truth. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time and work to take one or two key fact-claims and check them for accuracy.
These four moves (or tactics) can get you started with the fact-checking process. Try them in order.
In general, try these moves in sequence. If you find success at any stage, your work might be done.
But How Do I know What Sources are "Reputable"?
This is a fraught question today. A sizeable percentage of Americans distrust all “mainstream media.” A recently published book, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts (Oxford, 2018) conducted extensive network analysis of news consumption and social sharing. They concluded our news media have bifurcated. There’s an entire self-referential media ecosystem centered on Fox News and embracing many right-wing and far-right websites that amplify and affirm one another while discrediting all news sources that fall outside their circle as “biased,” “left-wing,” or even “fake.” This is what the authors of the book call a “propaganda feedback loop.” In this media sphere, adherence to a partisan belief system and cultural identity is more important than being factually correct. A claim that is demonstrably false is more acceptable than stating something that challenges the overarching political narrative.
Doesn’t this happen on the left-wing too? There are hyperpartisan sites on the left that traffic in rumors and lies, but the difference is their audiences tend to balance their consumption of those sites with mainstream news organizations that generally attempt to adhere to journalistic norms set out in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (Links to an external site.). In this sphere, it’s harder to maintain a story or a position based on “facts” that can be disproved or that even seem unlikely. Traditional journalistic processes are valued as much as or more than alignment with a set of political beliefs, and fewer people on the left dismiss the mainstream media’s reporting out of hand.
In this course, healthy skepticism is encouraged, but blanket distrust of mainstream news organizations based only on alleged political bias is not supportable. Part of the job of becoming a savvy information consumer is figuring out what sources of information you can, for the most part, trust to get it right much of the time and strive to correct mistakes.
Some generally-respected news organizations include . . .
In addition to the moves, there’s a habit to cultivate: Check your emotions.
When you feel strong emotions – happiness, anger, pride, vindication – and that emotion pushes you to assume something is true and share a “fact” with others, stop and think. These are exactly the claims that you must fact-check.
Why? Because you’re already predisposed to analyze things that put you in an intellectual frame of mind. But things that make you angry or overjoyed, well… our record as humans is not good when it comes to being influenced by our emotions.
Our normal inclination is to agree with the content that we already feel is correct. (Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” We are inclined to accept things that align with what we already believe and reject or ignore things that don’t.) Moreover, researchers have found that content that causes strong emotions (both positive and negative) spreads the fastest through our social networks. This shouldn’t surprise us; social media platforms are designed to maximize “stickiness.” They do everything they can to keep users engaged, because engagement is profitable. Savvy activists, advocates, and marketers take advantage of platform design and human psychology, getting past our filters by posting material that goes straight to our hearts.
Not only that, but whoever writes a headline is likely trying to catch your attention, and that can distort the meaning of a story. “Clickbait” is designed to provoke an emotion so it can spread. Resist the urge to share something based only on a headline. If you read the story – even if you simply skim it quickly – you will have a better sense of what it’s really about and whether it’s something you want to share. (Incidentally, authors of news stories usually don’t write their own headlines, so don’t blame them if they are ridiculously off base.)
Use your emotions as a checkpoint. Strong emotions should become a trigger for your new fact-checking habit. Every time content you want to share makes you feel rage, laughter, ridicule, or even a heartwarming buzz, spend 30 seconds fact-checking. You might avoid misleading others and embarrassing yourself by passing along something that’s simply not true.
In some cases an emotionally-charged piece of news may be factually true, but more complicated than it appears at first. By learning the context and the complexities through a more nuanced source of information, you can share valuable information without all the emotional baggage. You might even help cool down an over-heated argument.
For more information about the emotional and psychological components to information, see “The Psychology of Fake News” by Tania Lombrozo (NPR, March 27, 2018).
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"Evaluating Scholarly Sources." Texas A&M University Writing Center. Texas A&M University, n.d. Web. 3 Aug. 2021.
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