Indicators of Reliability
The sources of information you find may include a wide range of accuracy, value, and suitability. Some sources are extremely valuable and well focused for your topic. Others are not as reliable or well rounded. Still others are just not a good fit with your type of research. You can check a few different aspects of your source to ensure that it is good for your purposes. What constitutes a good source for one paper is not necessarily a good source for another paper. The following sections show you what to look for as you evaluate the materials you find.
You should be able to see where the research source got its information. Statistical data in particular should be documented so that you know exactly where the data came from. If there is no bibliographical information shown for your source, there should be some contact information for the author. Just because someone makes some claims doesn't mean you should automatically trust those claims to be true. Be especially wary if the source makes claims that are different from those you have seen or heard elsewhere. In such a case, be sure that the author included facts and background documentation as the source of those claims. If you question the credibility of a fact, try to verify it against another reliable source so that you are assured it is a fact and not just an interpretation.
Authority of Sources
Be sure that the author or the source itself is known to be reliable. Some publications, such as encyclopedias, almanacs, journals, and textbooks, are well respected and known to only publish accurate information. When the source is less recognized, you need to check for the author's credentials. Find out whether the author has specific experience or education that qualifies her or him to write about the subject. What is the author's job title? Sometimes an author's contact information is provided, so you can ask for more details if needed. If other respected sources cite this author, you can be fairly confident that the source in question is a reliable one.
The purpose of the source can affect the reliability of the information. If the source exists to persuade or influence the reader or viewer in any way, the information it contains may be distorted somewhat. For example, a company that sells lawn products may distribute a “fact sheet” or short video about garden pests. These materials, however, will recommend the company's products as the solution; they will not recommend alternative methods for dealing with unwanted bugs.
Suitability of Sources
Even when a source is found to be reliable, it may not be suitable for your paper. The intended audience of the source could be much less experienced or much more experienced than you are. That will determine whether the information is too general or too specific and technical for your paper. The information may have been written for a very different purpose than yours, and therefore has a completely different slant on things. Be particularly careful if your source is a Web site. The purpose of the Web site will in many cases help determine its reliability and suitability for research. Web sites can be categorized into a few different types:
Organizational Web sites
Government Web sites
Academic Web sites
Commercial Web sites
Personal Web sites
Interest Group and Association Web sites
You can see that some of these types of sites are more likely to be reliable sources. Some sites exist for reasons other than simply providing information. They may be selling something, trying to convince you of their position, or even attacking other groups. In addition, not all the Web sites of one type will be equally reliable. It may take some detective work on your part to uncover the reliability of a source, including those you are inclined to trust automatically.
You should look at the publication date of the source you are using. If you are writing about a historical topic, the primary sources should have been published close to the time of the event. Secondary sources published after the event will be reliable if the research was reputable. If your project deals with a more current event, timeliness is even more important. Be sure that major changes haven't occurred between the publication of your source and the time you are using the source. It can be hard to know how timely Web site information is, because sometimes no date is shown on the site. Even when a date is shown, it is not always clear whether that is the date when the information was first put there or when it was last revised.
Quantity and Diversity of Sources
It is easier to trust a source when you have seen the same information come from another source. Therefore, a quantity of sources is a good thing to have. On the other hand, you need sources that are diverse. A variety of different sources offering a variety of information and interpretations gives you enough resource material to fully explore and explain all aspects of your topic. These aspects can include many different viewpoints, and even opposing viewpoints.