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Evaluating Information

Once you find information that you want to include in your work, you then need to evaluate it, and decide if it’s suitable for the assignment, essay or dissertation that you’re writing. Let’s see how…

Critical evaluation

As you search for information online, you’re going to find a lot of different results from a lot of different sources! Web sites, books, journal articles, conference proceedings, videos, images – the list is endless!

There will be conflicting opinions, contradictory facts, unresolved arguments, questionable data, and maybe some good old misinformation and fake news. It’s the world that we live in now, and as an independent researcher, you’re going to have to learn to deal with it.

So what can you do? Read on to find out more…

  Check out our Six questions video to get started...

Six questions

It’s easy to find information, but much more difficult to critically evaluate it. This means scanning the information in front of you and working out if it is trustworthy, appropriate, accurate, and relevant for the type of work you’re doing. To help, there are six simple questions you can ask:

1. Who?

Who wrote the information? Who do they work for? Who has sponsored the work and why? Who is the intended audience? How qualified are the authors? And has the work been cited by other writers and academics?

2. What?

What exactly is the information? Just because it topped your search results doesn’t mean it’s more valuable than other results. How well does it relate to your topic? Does it help answer your question, support your arguments, or provide an alternative viewpoint? Is the level and format of the information appropriate and not too simple or in-depth for your needs?

3. When?

How current and up-to-date is the information? When was it last updated? Is there a newer version available? For some subjects, you’ll want cutting-edge research; for others, an historical perspective will be better.

4. Where?

Where did you find the information? Is that source appropriate? For example, is it a scholarly source such as a journal, or a social media source such as a blog? If it’s a web site, does the URL reveal anything about its publisher – is it a university, charity or company?

5. How?

How did the authors of the information reach their conclusions? If it’s a research-based publication, how reliable and trustworthy are their data and results? Can their sources be verified, and are their statements supported by evidence? Also, is the tone of the work objective, unbiased, and inclusive of other people’s views?

6. Why?

Why did the authors write the information, and why are they sharing it? What motivates them? Are they trying to sell you something, persuade you of a viewpoint, or influence opinions for their own gain? How emotive is their language?

Download our Evaluating Information Prompt Sheet to help you consider and critically evaluate each type of information you find.

Peer reviewed information

Academic information is usually written by subject experts and reviewed by other experts (or peers) in the field before they are published. This peer-review process ensures the information you read has been checked for quality, importance and originality – and can be trusted and relied upon to support and evidence your own work.

Here’s a great tip. When performing a search in Library Search or one of your subject databases, you can limit your search to scholarly or peer-reviewed publications.

Evaluating information is highly subjective and depends on the type of information you’re looking for. You’ll need to use your own judgement, treat each source with care, critically assess each piece of information you find, and never take anything for granted.

Popular vs academic information

Your lecturers and tutors will usually expect you to use academic information in your work: authoritative sources such as textbooks and peer-reviewed journal articles. However, there are times when 'non-academic' sources such as newspapers, videos or blogs are also useful. Such material won't generally have been through an academic-type peer-review process, so take particular care to demonstrate that you have critically evaluated it.

Finding lots of unsuitable information during your search? Maybe now is the time to evaluate your search technique and try a different approach? Take another look at your keywords and consider whether they're suitable, or perhaps try a different resource or database?