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Research Essentials: Evaluate Sources and Spot Fake News

Evaluating Sources

Regardless of the type of resource you are examining, always evaluate the accuracy and reliability of the information you find before using it for your research. Using the acronym CARDS method can help you do that evaluating. Consider the following when determining the quality of an article or source:

C - Credibility:

  • Is the author, publisher, or sponsor of the information evident? What are their credentials, reputation, education or affiliations? 
  • Is there an "About Us" or "Contact Us" link?  Besides an email address, is there a phone number or postal address to contact for more information?
  • If it's a book or article, is the author reputable? Does the reference have a bibliography? Is the information still valid today?

A - Accuracy:

  • Do you see errors on the page (spelling, grammar, facts)? Errors like these not only indicate a lack of quality control but can actually produce inaccuracies in the information?
  • Do they cite the sources of their information?

R - Reliability:

  • Is the source objective or does it advocate a certain point of view?  Use objective sources first, but consider using those advocating different points of view as well.
  • Is the information free of advertising or clearly separated from it?

D - Date:

  • Can you find the copyright date or the date when it was written or last revised?
  • Do any statistics, graphs, or charts clearly state by whom and when the data was collected?
  • Are there links which no longer work?

S - Source:

  • Is the information based on primary or secondary sources?
  • Are there links to other sources that would score high in this C.A.R.D.S. evaluation?

Note the internet address domain in this search string: "climate change" site:gov.
Try using one of the site domains below when you search on Google for academic level information.

  • .edu (educational institution)
  • .gov(government agency)
  • .mil (military organization)
  • .org (organization)

Primary sources are original sources of information on which other research is based, including documents such as poems, diaries, court records, interviews, surveys, and fieldwork. Primary materials also include research results generated by experiments, which are published as journal articles in some fields of study and sets of data, such as census statistics which have been tabulated, but not interpreted.

Secondary sources describe or analyze the primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include: dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, and books and articles that interpret or review research works. Peer-reviewed publications generally fall into this category.

Tertiary sources list, compile, digest or index primary or secondary sources. Indexes, handbooks, digests and almanacs generally fall into this category.

If you think about the publication details of the information and consider the following, you will often be able to determine the type of source.

  • Timing of the event recorded -- If the article was composed close to the time of the event recorded, chances are it is primary material. For instance, a letter written by a soldier during the Vietnam War is primary material, as is an article written in the newspaper or a soldier's letter home during the Civil War. However, an article written analyzing the results of the battle at Gettysburg is secondary material.
  • Rhetorical aim of the written item -- Often, an item that is written with a persuasive, or analytical aim is secondary material. These materials have digested and interpreted the event, rather than reported on it.
  • Context of the researching scholar -- Primary materials for a critic studying the literature of the Civil War are different from primary materials for a historian studying Civil War prisons. The critic's primary materials are the poems, stories, and films of the era. The research scientist's primary materials would be the diaries and writings of slave families.

Adapted from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point University Library

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