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4.3 How Do I Evaluate a Source’s Relevance?

Your Road Map to Success: Section 4.3

Learning Outcome 4.3: Identify the criteria used to evaluate the relevance of information.

Why is this important?

You might assume that when it comes to sources for your research paper, the more you have, the better your paper will be. But quality is more important than quantity. Being able to evaluate the relevance of information will help you stay focused on your goals by eliminating unnecessary information.

How does this relate to your success in this course?

Mastering this learning outcome will help you identify and avoid tangential or nonessential information that could distract you from the central focus on your research.

When evaluating sources, including sources found on the Internet, in the library, or in print, be sure to consider whether the content meets your needs. This is called determining an information source’s relevance. This goes beyond simply asking if the source relates to your topic. Rather, how well does it help answer your question or enhance your understanding? Keep in mind that a resource may not be an exact match or completely answer your question, but it could describe a certain angle of your topic that you may want to explore further. Therefore, it could still have value for you. Deciding whether something is relevant to your research is a bit of a judgment call, but the following strategies can help.

Revisit the Scope of Research

As you consider sources, it’s important to keep the scope of your research in mind. As we explored in Chapter 1, your research question should be narrowed according to the purpose of the research as well as the audience. A brief PowerPoint presentation intended to introduce a topic to your classmates, for instance, will require definitions and other fundamental types of information, whereas a 20-page research essay for your instructor will require deeper evidence and analyses. Notice how the intended audience dictates the focus and depth of the information. Content is generally created for different groups, such as practitioners, researchers, the general

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public, or maybe special-interest groups within the general public, such as those who belong to certain political parties, religions, lifestyles, and so on.

In thinking about relevance, Irwin reconsiders the scope of his research once more. He has chosen to focus on how social networks have impacted business, and marketing in particular. His digital literacy teacher and potentially his classmates are his audience, so he needs information that is professional but not overly technical. One way to determine the intended audience for a source is to examine the type of language used within it. Irwin comes across several how-to articles that seem intended for marketing professionals. The articles are related to his topic; however, they do not address societal impacts. He also worries that the technical language makes the information inaccessible to him and his audience. Other webpages, however, seem too elementary and barely mention how social networks are used in marketing. They also fail to address impacts on society. Irwin realizes that for his assignment, “just right” sources seem to have more advanced language, and perhaps some vocabulary specific to the field, but not a level of terminology that makes the source incomprehensible to him or his audience.

The format of the information you choose can also affect the scope, depth, and manner in which your topic is discussed. Different formats may influence what is covered about a topic, such as a broad look at a topic in a book, in contrast to coverage of very specific and technical aspects of a topic in a scholarly article. Often, you may need to get information from various formats that are addressed to different types of audiences to gather all of the relevant information you need.

As Irwin continues his search for current, relevant information, he reminds himself that he is unlikely to find one perfect article that addresses all aspects of his topic. He initially thought it would be interesting to include a podcast or personal website for his last resource; however, he notices that his results list includes quite a few government websites and decides to explore those first.

Consider the Body of Research Gathered

Another way to determine whether a source is relevant for your needs is to compare it with other sources of information you’ve gathered on your topic. Looking back at the ACRL threshold concept searching as strategic exploration, we know that research usually involves gathering bits and pieces of information from many sources to address a research need. Examining how those bits and pieces fit together can help you determine each source’s relevance.

Sometimes, you may come across several sources that are essentially saying the same thing about your topic. Gathering five sources that all share the same information or viewpoint can result in research that is one-sided or underdeveloped. As we explored in Chapter 2, avoiding bias in research requires that you seek out diverse perspectives. As you come across new information, consider how it relates to the other information you’ve already gathered. Does it fill a gap? Does it offer a new perspective on an element another source has addressed? Does it present a counterpoint worth considering?

As Irwin explores one of the government sources he located on his most recent Internet search, he recognizes that much of the information on the webpage was already discussed in one of his scholarly sources. Because the source is not adding new information to his body of research, he takes the time to explore additional government websites. He starts to think of his various sources as pieces of a puzzle and knows he’ll need patience, critical thought, and creativity to locate the right piece.

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Section 4.3 Knowledge Check Quiz

1. What is the most relevant source for a general overview of a TV series? A. a social media page that generates memes about cast members B. a book on the history of television C. an encyclopedia entry about the show

2. One way to determine the relevance of a source is to consider __________. A. its length B. the audience for which it was created C. the number of authors who created it

3. Having too many sources that say the same thing on your topic can lead to one-sided research. A. True B. False

Answers 1 (C), 2 (B), 3 (A)

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Determining Credibility of Authors and Age of Information

4.4 How Do I Evaluate a Source’s Authority?

Your Road Map to Success: Section 4.4

Learning Outcome 4.4: Identify the criteria used to evaluate the authority of information.

Why is this important?

Being able to evaluate the authority of information will help you find credible sources and avoid those that might discredit your research. This skill can help in daily life as well. For example, Christian is preparing his children to move to a new town. One of his friends hears about the move and sends him a link to an anonymous posting on a discussion site that complains about the new town’s school system. At first, Christian is alarmed; however, knowing the importance of evaluating authority, he does some research. He quickly finds a government website that lists above average test results from the school district and a Facebook page with glowing reviews from parents whose children attend the school. He decides the authority of these pages is much more credible and feels better about his decision to move.

How does this relate to your success in this course?

Mastering this learning outcome will help you identify qualified sources of information with expertise on your topic.

Once you’ve determined that a source is relevant to your information need, you need to consider the author’s expertise on the subject matter. In information literacy, authority is a level of education and experience that qualifies an individual or group to publish information on a given topic. For example, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a global authority on climate change because its more than 2,000 members have advanced education and extensive experience in climate science.

Let’s revisit the threshold concept authority is constructed and contextual. In other words, no single checklist of criteria can tell you who is an appropriate authority in every situation; instead, the level of authority required depends on the information needed (ACRL, 2015). For

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Critical-Thinking Questions 1. What are two things to look out for when determining

an author’s credibility? 2. Consider a recent article you read online. What steps

did you take to determine if the publisher was reputable?

example, you wouldn’t need information from a leading researcher in meteorology to help you decide whether to wear a jacket tomorrow, but you would need information from someone with that level of authority if you were writing a thesis on meteorological models. A Wikipedia article on Harry Potter would be perfectly sufficient to help you keep track of which character is which as you are reading the books. However, Wikipedia would not be appropriate if you were writing a dissertation on Harry Potter’s place in children’s literature; for that, you would need to consult scholars on the topic. This is what is meant by authority is contextual—different contexts require different levels of authority.

Similarly, the value placed on different types of authority often varies by community. Members of one group might not consider a figure in a different group as a reputable authority. For example, members of one political party may view the writings of certain leaders or thinkers with high regard, whereas people from a different political party may not. In another example, a noted historian of the Civil War would not carry the same authority if they were to write an article about a modern health-related topic. Their authority in their area of expertise does not grant them authority in other, unrelated subject areas. This is what is meant by the idea that authority is constructed—different groups construct their own ideas about who or what is a valued source of information for their purposes.

Student Profile: Gina

Gina is in trouble. She’s been researching the topic of her art appreciation paper for over a week and is coming up empty-handed. When she initially selected the topic, she was excited. Her professor asked the class to research an artist who made a significant impact on their genre, and she chose blues and folk singer Elizabeth Cotten. Cotten grew up near Gina’s hometown in North Carolina and, like Gina, was a self-taught guitarist and songwriter. Cotten was also a favorite of Gina’s grandfather, who often played Cotten’s records whenever he baked for the family.

Initially, Gina easily located information within the digital university library. However, once she began reviewing the most relevant sources, she found that they shared similar information on Cotten, revealing only a few pieces of information on how Cotten’s music influenced American blues. Now Gina searches the Internet, but her top search results are mostly links to recordings of Cotten’s music.

Credibility of Authors and Age of Information From Title:

Internet Research: What’s Credible? (https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx? wID=100753&xtid=58373)

 0:000:00 / 4:05 / 4:05 1x1xhttps://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=100753&xtid=58373

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Gina knows she’s not supposed to use information from Wikipedia in an academic paper, but she is curious to see whether the site contains any new information on Cotten. She locates the references section of Cotten’s Wikipedia entry and is relieved to find that many of the titles allude to Cotten’s impacts on American music. She only needs two more sources to complete her paper, and it looks like she’ll have three to choose from!

The strategy Gina used to gather information from the citations listed in the Wikipedia article is called citation mining. It can be valuable, especially if you have exhausted other avenues of research. However, remember that you should use the CRAAPO test to evaluate each source listed on a Wikipedia article before using any of the information.

Identify the Publisher

The first step in evaluating the authority of a resource is to find out who the publisher is. This information is easier to find for some resources than for others. Books, magazines, and journals identify the publisher prominently, usually on the cover as well as on the copyright page. Look for reputable publishers in a given field; for example, scientific societies or university presses for science texts and journals. Typically, the publishing process for academic works includes peer review as well as careful fact-checking and copyediting that ensures information, including source references, is accurate. Self-published material, in contrast, hasn’t been reviewed or edited by publishing professionals and therefore needs careful evaluation. With current technology, self- published books can look very sophisticated; nevertheless, you should check the author’s credentials to determine whether they can be considered an authority on the topic.

Also evaluate the organization responsible for publishing the information you find on a website. A website’s publisher or sponsoring organization can often be found at the bottom of a webpage, alongside the copyright symbol. Reputable organizations are usually stable, so the information on the website most likely will not undergo radical changes in a short time. Academic institutions tend to be credible, as do government agencies, although shifts in administrations can lead to additions or omissions of information on government agency sites. Not-for-profit organizations are usually considered more credible than commercial websites because making a profit or selling a product does not motivate them. However, some not-for-profit organizations exist to promote a specific agenda rather than to provide objective information, so conduct some research into the nature of the organizations whose information you’re considering using. Look for the organization’s mission statement, which is often in an “About Us” section. Also take the time to investigate the organization beyond what its own literature says about it. A quick Internet search can reveal any recent news or other relevant information that can give you additional insights into the organization and what it represents.

Highlight: Examine an Organization’s Authority

Pay attention to organizations with similar-sounding names; sometimes a group will call itself something that sounds like an established, reputable organization, but it may have a different purpose. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Pediatricians sound like very similar organizations. Are they?

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Chaay_Tee/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Take the time to verify author information, such as academic degrees, certifications, professional experience, and group affiliations. If the article or website doesn’t offer these details or you can’t verify them, it may be beneficial to continue looking for other sources.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (https://www.aap.org (https://www.aap.org) ) is a professional organization for pediatricians that was founded in 1930, has over 60,000 members, and is a leading source of clinical guidance, policy recommendations, and education about children’s health.

The American College of Pediatricians (https://www.acpeds.org/ (https://www.acpeds.org/) ) is a socially conservative group that was founded in 2002 and consists of several hundred members. Some public health experts believe that the organization advances its members’ personal and religious agendas by distorting the research of others (Collins, 2010).

As you can see, although their names are very similar, the authority of these organizations varies greatly. As this example shows, it’s essential to investigate the authority of any organization publishing information that you plan to use and consider the organization’s purpose for publishing this information, as discussed later in this chapter.

Identify the Author and the Author’s Credentials

Print sources typically list the author’s name prominently on the cover, on the title page, or at the beginning of an article. On a website, the author’s name may be harder to find. Look at the top or bottom of the page, or look for an “About Us” or “Contact Us” section. You might have to dig around the site to find out who authored the information.

Once you identify an author, evaluate that author’s expertise in the subject area. An author’s credentials are the qualifications that make them reputable in a specific field. Examine an author’s professional biography, which is often linked to the author’s name in an article they’ve published, to discover their relevant work history and other publications. You can also try searching for additional information about the author online. When evaluating an author’s credentials or qualifications, look for the following items as possible indicators that the author can be considered an expert in the field.

Academic background and degrees: Degrees listed after an author’s name, such as PhD or MD, show that the author completed many years of study and is qualified to write on a topic. It is a good idea to make sure that the author’s field of study relates to the topic about which they are writing. Academic degrees also often indicate that the author conducts research in that area. Licensure or certification: In addition to academic degrees, look for letters after the author’s name indicating a special license or certification. These indicate that the author has passed some type of examination certifying that they are proficient in a certain area. If you are not familiar with a particularhttps://www.aap.org/https://www.acpeds.org/

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certification, try searching the letters or the full name of the credential using a search engine to find out what the requirements are for obtaining that credential. Requirements can include serving as an apprentice for a specified length of time, passing a state exam, or some other proof of proficiency. Often these licenses or certifications are sponsored by a professional organization that maintains a current list or database of licensed members. Work or other experience: In some fields, work experience might be more important than the number of years spent on a formal education. In addition to their work at a company, authors might have served on committees for professional groups or received special recognition for work in their field, such as industry awards or grants. Affiliations: Sometimes authors are affiliated with groups, such as academic institutions, companies, government agencies, or professional organizations. These affiliations might indicate where the author works, or they might indicate the author’s membership in an organization. As suggested earlier, investigate the reputation of any groups with which the author is associated. Affiliation with a credible organization usually signifies the credibility of the author, since the author serves as a representative of the organization. Other publications: An author or journalist who has written many publications on a topic has probably spent considerable time studying that topic and thus might be considered an expert. This is especially true if the author’s other works have been published by reputable websites, journals, or book publishers. Additionally, scholars often cite other well-respected scholars in their field, so if an author’s publications have been cited by many other sources, they are probably an authority in that area. Electronic journals will often indicate how many times an article has been viewed or cited to help assess the article’s impact.

Contact the Publisher or Author

When determining the authority of a source, look for contact information on websites, including addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. You can often find them in an “About Us” or “Contact Us” section. If you have questions that aren’t answered either on the resource itself or through additional searching of the author or publisher, try contacting the source presenting the information. Contact information can indicate transparency and a willingness to engage with readers. In contrast, sources that provide no contact information may have something to hide. This is a sign that you should consider using a different source.

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Read the URLs

You can also gather quite a bit of information about a webpage by examining the URL. Earlier we explained how to use the URL to determine the date the information was posted online. The URL can also reveal the author, publisher, who is sponsoring the information presented, as well as the type of organization posting the information. Each of these items will help you decide on the authority of a source. Take a look at the following sample URL to understand the different parts of it.

http://www.sampleurl.com/folder/file.html

http: This part of the URL stands for “hypertext transfer protocol.” This is the language or set of rules that computers use to communicate with each other when transmitting information. www: This part of the URL stands for “World Wide Web.” Browsers usually add this on, even if you do not type it into the address bar. As with “http://,” it usually is not necessary to enter this part anymore. sampleurl: This is the domain name, which is the unique address for the web resource or the server on which it exists. Like a physical mailing address, the domain name must be unique in order for a browser to know how to get to it. Often this is the name of the organization that is responsible for the website. .com: This is called a top-level domain (TLD). A limited number of TLDs are available, and each can tell you a lot about the type of website using it (Table 4.2). Some TLDs are restricted to specific types of organizations that meet certain criteria, and some can be used by anyone. /folder/file: This path takes you to a specific webpage. Just as you organize your files on your desktop into folders, the individual pages on a website reside in folders, and this part of the URL shows the location of those folders and files on the server where the website exists. .html: This is the file extension. It shows what type of file the page is. In this example, .html means it’s a webpage. Other file extensions you may see are .pdf, which you can open with a PDF viewer like Adobe Acrobat Reader; .docx for a Microsoft Word document file; or .jpeg for an image or photograph. Knowing the file type is not critical to evaluating the quality of the information.

Table 4.2: Common top-level domains

Top- level domain

Website type Notes

.com Usually indicates a commercial website

These websites are often sponsored by a company and may be intended to sell a product. That does not mean that they cannot be credible. Many .com websites include reputable news outlets that contain great information. There are no restrictions on who can register a domain name with this TLD, so the quality of these websites will vary.

.org Usually indicates a not-for-profit organization

Many of these websites are credible, especially those that are sponsored by established, reputable organizations like the American Cancer Society. As with .com websites, there are no restrictions on who can register a .org website, so you will find variations in the quality of information. Consider the purpose of the sponsoring organization; some may be promoting a certain viewpoint or agenda.

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Top- level domain

Website type Notes

.net Originally intended for organizations like Internet service providers

These websites are now unrestricted, meaning anyone can register for them, just like .com and .org websites.

.edu Indicates an educational institution

Registration of this TLD is restricted to colleges and universities, as well as some large museums. Information found on these sites is generally considered credible. However, you should still take the time to identify the source’s author, since many student-run sites can still retain the .edu TLD.

.gov Indicates a government agency

These are generally considered credible. However, you should still evaluate the source using the rest of the CRAAPO test.

.mil Indicates a U.S. military branch’s website

These are also generally considered credible. However, you should still evaluate the source using the rest of the CRAAPO  test.

Irwin is making progress. He locates useful statistical information from government websites, then turns his attention to three .com websites. The author of the first site claims to be the founder and chief executive officer of a social media company, but an Internet search for the company comes up empty, so Irwin dismisses the source. An immigration lawyer is the author of the second site. Although the information is relevant to his research, Irwin doesn’t think the author’s credentials relate to the topic well enough to establish authority. A social media manager for a large company wrote Irwin’s third pick. An Internet search on the author reveals many more articles published in reputable marketing and business magazines. Irwin is confident about the authority of this third source. Now he’ll also have to determine whether the information on the webpage is accurate.

Section 4.4 Knowledge Check Quiz

1. Which is the best source of information for an academic paper on bridge construction? A. a home and garden magazine B. a civil engineering journal C. an architecture professor’s blog

2. The least authoritative source of information on the symptoms of diabetes would be __________.

A. MedlinePlus.gov B. MayoClinic.org C. DoctorHal.com

3. The most credible top-level domains are __________. A. .net and .gov

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B. .org and .edu C. .edu and .gov

Answers 1 (B), 2 (C), 3 (C)

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