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Evaluating Information: 6 Question Words

Evaluating Information: 6 Question Words

Use the 6 question words as a guide for evaluating whether information sources are authoritative (accurate, credible and reliable). 

Important: A source is never only “good” or “bad” but can be more or less appropriate depending on the research you are doing. 

WHO : Author

Explanation: Who is the author and how did they get their authority? Authority exists in many forms such as subject expertise (for example, a degreed professor), societal position (a member of Congress), or special experience (a participant at an event). Many disciplines have acknowledged authorities (e.g., well-known scholars) whose ideas are considered “standard” in the field. But even these “standards” can be and have been challenged. 

Example: A blog posting by an eyewitness to a riot would be an authoritative primary source on the subject.  

WHAT : Document Type & Tone

Explanation: Authoritative content may come in various forms (books, articles, videos, social media, etc.) and come in many different tones (conversational, academic, technical). Its creation process determines if it can be considered primary, secondary, or a tertiary source. What is considered an authoritative source depends on the researcher’s question and needs. 

Example: Research on Malcolm X would be enhanced by an informal conversation with one of his friends. Research on earth sciences, however, would be enhanced by the study of technical reports. 

WHERE : Source Type & Location

Explanation: Authoritative content may be found in formal (such as a scholarly article) or informal (a blog posting) sources. Many disciplines have acknowledged authorities (publications like scholarly journals or books) that are considered “standard” in the field. Similarly, there are publishing houses, academic presses, or even certain website domains (e.g., .gov or .edu) that have reputations for providing high-quality information. But even these “standards” can be and have been challenged. It is important to evaluate the work itself and where you found it. 

Example: Authoritative research on fracking produced by the federal government but then re-purposed by a fracking company website, may be authoritative, but should be carefully analyzed in the context of the site on which it was found. 

WHEN : Publication Date & Event

Explanation: Authoritative information may be recently published or very old. It can be published close to the event it is about or much later. Subject and context are all important when asking “when.” 

Example: Referring to a book published in 1900 for research on the US Civil War (1861-1865) could be authoritative. Researching stem cell transplantation using a study in a journal article published in 2010 could be out-of-date. 

WHY : Author’s Purpose 

Bias can exist in any source (newspapers, scholarly articles, blog posts, etc.). When evaluating a source, asking why the author(s) wrote the document (and who funded or sponsored the work) can help you decide if it is authoritative. Having a bias doesn’t mean a source shouldn’t be used. Rather, any information should be examined critically and verified with another source. 

Example: An article on plastic bag recycling on a plastic industry website might reference facts found in scientific research but be used in a biased way to support their industry. 

HOW : Method of Gathering & Analyzing Data

Explanation: The methodology an author chooses to gather and analyze information plays an important role in the credibility of their research. When gathering data an author may have done their own original study, compiled outside sources, interviewed people, or be writing from personal experience. Any method can be authoritative, depending on the information need. The author's use of proprietary, inter-operable (the extent to which systems can exchange, interpret, and share data), or open data formats signals how and if an author intends the data to be used and shared. 

Example: Using interviews to support the effectiveness of a new drug is not a sound methodology; however, using interviews to give context to a riot is. 

 

Method adapted from Rachel Radom and Rachel W. Gammons, “Teaching Information Evaluation with the Five Ws: An Elementary Method, an Instructional Scaffold, and the Effect on Student Recall and Application,” Reference & User Services Quarterly 53, 4 (2014): 334-47.

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Created for educational purposes by: Bronwen K. Maxson (bmaxson[at]uoreogn.edu) and Nico Floresca (nicof[at]uoregon.edu)

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