This guide describes several techniques for evaluating source reliability that Oberlin librarians find useful. There are no hard and fast rules as to which technique works best for evaluating a source. The most important thing you can do to be a critical information consumer is to become familiar with at least two of these methods and build the habit of pausing to use them when you encounter new sources.
Remember, context matters!
- Always think critically about how a source you are considering relates to your research question. Whether a source is reliable is not an immutable, fixed characteristic of the source. A recent biology paper studying the Ailuropoda melanoleuca genome is probably not a reliable way to get information about the experience of women in the Cold War!
- Authority is constructed and contextual. Different people have expertise in different areas; sources have different strengths. No single source or expert is authoritative and reliable on every topic. Build the habit of looking at a variety of sources and thinking about whether the strengths of that source are relevant to your research question.
- Avoid taking what a source says about itself at face value. Always seek external confirmation of its claims and purpose. Some sources exist to mislead readers, or have a context that has changed since they were first created, and seeking outside information is the most reliable way to identify those circumstances.