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Research Help

How do you know if a source you have found is trustworthy and useful?

Whether you find a source on a library database, on a website, or though a social media link, part of the research process requires you to take a step back and evaluate its usefulness and accuracy. 

You may have been taught to look for things like a website's extension (.org, .com, .gov), or for advertisements and external links.  You may also be familiar with the CRAAP test.  While these can be useful indicators, they are often superficial and may lead the reader to incorrect conclusions about a source's credibility.  Instead, you should try Lateral Reading. 

Lateral Reading is a method that fact-checkers use to verify the credibility of unfamiliar sources by researching the source itself on the open web, and by tracking down quoted or linked material. 

Watch the below video for an overview of this useful method, then click through the above tabs to go a bit deeper.  Closed captioning is available for this video.

Viewing time: 3:35

Creative Commons License CC by NC 4.0

Citizen Literacy was created by Robert Detmering, Amber Willenborg, and Terri Holtze for University of Louisville Libraries and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

The Stanford Experiment (Or why this matters)

The below video gives an overview of why lateral reading is an important skill.  Stanford University wanted to see how well different groups evaluated organizational websites to find the credible one, so they pitched historians, college students, and professional fact-checkers against each other.  The results may surprise you.

Closed captioning is available for this video.

Viewing time: 3:14.

CTRL-F, "Online Verification Skills — Video 1: Introductory Video." YouTube.com. Jun 29, 2018

Step 1: Investigate the Source

If you have found a website or journal that is unfamiliar to you, instead of trusting what the source says about itself, there are some quick steps you can take to check its trustworthiness.

  1. Open a new tab and go to Google or your favorite search engine
  2. Search the name of the website or the organization
  3. See what other sources come up about the site. Wikipedia is a good source for this type of initial verification.

The below video provides some more detail and tricks to help you verify sources.  Closed captioning is available for the video.

 

Viewing time: 2:45

CTRL-F, "Online Verification Skills — Video 2: Investigating the Source." YouTube.com. Jun 29, 2018

Step 2: Finding the Original Source

If you have found something interesting on a site such as Buzzfeed, which often quotes or reposts stories from other news sites, your best practice is to find that original reporting source.  The below video gives you tips on that process to help you in your lateral reading.

Closed captioning is available for this video.

Viewing time: 1:35

CTRL-F, "Online Verification Skills — Video 3: Finding the Original Source." YouTube.com. Jun 29, 2018

In addition to the criteria noted in the previous tabs, some disciplines have additional factors to consider when evaluating sources.

 

Authority

Your discipline may preference authors with a terminal degree in that field (often a PhD) from a respected university.  Most scholarly articles will include a brief biography on the author, but you might also try using Google to investigate the author as well.  Keep in mind, the idea of authority in academia has some controversy, including systemic barriers for people of color, women or people of non-binary genders, and people with disabilities.  Talk with your professor if you have found a source that seems authoritative, but might be outside of the standard peer-reviewed process.

 

Publication Date

The age of your source might be a factor in its appropriateness, depending on your discipline.  If you are a History student, publication date might not be as important as whether the knowledge of the event has shifted dramatically.  For example, if you are researching the history of American education, sources published in the 1950s might show an unacceptable racial bias.

For fields where the research is always moving and changing, such as the natural sciences, Communication Studies, Journalism, and Computer Science, you might consider sources that are no older than 5 years.

However, disciplines that change more slowly, such as Music, Education, or Mathematics, may accept resources that are up to 10 years old.

As always, your professor can provide guidance on discipline-specific standards.