The interwebz is 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. You can find glorious videos of David Bowie singing in sassy high heel boots in the Labyrinth or videos of little-known comedians in the 80’s. And then there’s this baby panda trying to make a break for it.
Aside from the fun and wonky, the internet is also a great place for basic information. Whether you’re trying to remember what poison ivy looks like or attempting to stave off a baking disaster (save the pie!!), a quick Google search is generally all you need. 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. 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, you can get away with it being a bit older, but newer is always better. When I was an undergrad, we tended to avoid 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 couple of 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 highlights, or a pediatrician to bake your wedding cake, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t look to a celebrity for medical information (though I do know a lawyer who is an excellent cook, and you should definitely check out her blog). 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 wouldn’t 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 as much as I’ve loved their safety instructors, the National Rifle Association’s website isn’t going to be helpful if you’re looking up crime or accident stats.
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? One of the quickest things to look for is the quality of the writing (dang, I just ruled myself out). Are there obvious typos, breaks in flow or logic (crap, crap, crap), 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 eagle genetics (who does that?), 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 birds of prey 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 (please no.) 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!
Peace, love, and science!