How to Tell if an Information Source is Trustworthy

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post on how to tell if information sources are trustworthy or not. Since repetition helps information retention, I decided it was time to revisit an updated version post. Especially now as we are approaching election season, it is critical that we are relying on trustworthy sources to give us accurate information. There’s a lot of junk out there, but we can sort through it together.

Let’s start with the interwebz. It’s an interesting place. You can find lists of the top 31 things only “Friends” fans will appreciate or lists of studies trying (mainly failing) to find a link between vaccines and autism. Aside from the fun and wonky, the internet is also a great place for basic information. A more thoughtful search can also guide you through some complicated tasks, like tracking down a politician’s voting records or pulling up the details on a car or neighborhood before a major purchase. But what about when you’re trying to wade through fact and opinion? What if you’re trying to find information on a subject that is hotly debated or poorly understood? What if you just want to be assured that the information you’re receiving from out there in cyber space is legitimate and trustworthy?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the CRAAP test.

C.R.A.A.P. is a helpful mnemonic for remembering a few key characteristics for judging the trustworthiness of a source. Originally designed by folks at California State University, Chico, the CRAAP test asks readers to look for a source’s currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. In the academic circuit, it’s largely taught to help students learn to identify scholarly sources and avoid, shall we say, less-than-legitimate websites. Outside the classroom, though, it’s still a handy map to carry on your quest for knowledge.

So what are the criteria we should be keeping in mind as we look for articles online or in print?

C – Currency

R – Relevance

A – Authority

A – Accuracy

P – Purpose

C– Currency. How recently was this article written? The publication date of a source can make all the difference in the world when we are talking about the accuracy of information. If the article or paper is more general background type information or it’s a classic landmark paper, you can get away with it being a bit older. However, newer is always better. When I was an undergrad, we tended to avoid science papers more than four years old when we were first getting in the habit of looking at source dates, but this really depends on the field and how quickly new information comes out. I’d say try to stick with information generated within the last 2-3 years, and you’re probably good to go.

R– Relevance. How relevant is a source’s information to the question you’re trying to answer? What was the intended audience of the source? As much as I prefer academic journals, I think if any of us were trying to look up information on heart disease, we would probably have an easier time with sources not intended for cardiologists. That being said, picking sources that are too simplified or tertiary might not even be helpful. If you find yourself needing to look up definitions every now and then as you look through a source, that’s fine; but if the article just reads like the Black Speech of Mordor, I’d go for something a bit less technical.

A– Authority. This. THIS. This is a big one, especially for web sources. Who is the author and why should I trust them?

  • If your internet source doesn’t even give you an author, that’s Red Flag #1. If you don’t know who wrote the article, how are you going to trust it? And if an author is listed, what credentials do they have to be giving you their information? Are they doctors? Astronauts? Writers? Pastors? Philosophers? Lawyers? You want to find an author who is well-educated in whatever field you’re researching. You wouldn’t ask a mechanic to do your  hair highlights or a pediatrician to bake your wedding cake, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t look to a celebrity for medical or nutritional information. Now granted, if you’re visiting websites like Autism Speaks or the American Cancer Society, you probably won’t be able to find authors on their background information pages. In that case, though, if you’re looking at a large, well-established organization, they’re probably reliable for basic information. Their information would not be suitable for a college-level paper, but it can give you quick facts.
  • Is there any contact information for the author or publisher?
  • Who is the publisher behind the author? Is it a biased source? For example, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is most likely not the most unbiased place to start researching the pros and cons of coal-driven energy, and PETA is not likely to give you the number of marine mammals rehabilitated and released back to the wild by Sea World (ahem, 9,000 since 2010).

A– Accuracy. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s tough when you’re exploring a new subject: how accurate is the source’s information?

  • Does the article cite other trustworthy sources? A lack of references can be a red flag. Where is the author getting their information? Obviously journalists can’t produce a “Works Cited” list, but websites can indeed either cite their sources at the end or link to their sources as they go (like I do.) Watch out when sources only ever cite themselves. Although many scientific authors cite their own work in a paper (I have), if an article doesn’t really branch out beyond citing their previous work, it’s a problem
  • One quick thing to look for when judging a source is the quality of the writing (dang, I just ruled myself out). Are there obvious typos, breaks in flow or logic, grammar issues–things like that? They aren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but they are hypothetically more common in sources that have not been peer-reviewed.

What’s peer-review, you say? In a nutshell, peer-review is the evaluation of an article before it is published. The key is that the potential article is not just reviewed by an editor, but by “peers.” This means that if, for example, I did a study and wrote a paper on dragon  genetics, the journal I submit my paper to would send out my paper to a handful of reviewers. These reviewers would be other researchers who have strong backgrounds in genetics or dragons or both. They would pick apart all of my analyses, my rationale, and my conclusions to determine if I answered my scientific questions in the best possible way. If I have a break in logic or don’t properly explain my methods, they’ll catch it before it ever even goes to publication. They could also suggest that I perform more analyses before my paper is published. Essentially, peer-review helps keep the standard high.

If you’re trying to find information on a given topic, does the source have to be peer-reviewed? Well, probably not. If you’re a student writing a paper, that’s a different story, but in general, I would say it’s probably easier to look at the sources that your source is citing. Do they tend to be .gov or .edu sites? Do they tend to be biased organizations? Are any of their sources primary literature (something peer-reviewed)? Does the source primarily cite its own previous work rather than also including other sources? The types of a sources an article or webpage cites can be a huge indicator of accuracy. And if there are no works cited, beam me up, Scotty. We don’t want that planet.

P– Purpose. The last part of the CRAAP test asks what is the purpose of this article? Is the source trying to sell something? Is the article meant to inform? Is it to persuade? Does the author make clear when they are giving opinion rather than fact? If the article is meant to persuade, do they give solid references to back their opinions? This last item, like accuracy, can sometimes be a bit difficult to ascertain, but honestly, just being aware that there are different purposes for different kinds of writing really makes a big difference.

So there you have it folks, the CRAAP test. Sometimes I wish it had a better name, and sometimes I giggle to myself that I have a perfectly legitimate excuse to say “crap” in front of a classroom of college students (because I’m an adult). I hope it helps you out in your daily web cruising, and if you’re still in school, you can use this guide to amaze your profs with a beautiful reference list!

2 thoughts on “How to Tell if an Information Source is Trustworthy

  1. Pingback: The Biggest Part of the Economy that You’ve Never Heard Of | Linnaeus and the Lamppost

  2. Pingback: What Even is Cancer, Really? | Linnaeus and the Lamppost

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