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Evaluating claims you find on web sites: B. Authority

What is a credible source: a checklist

AUTHORITY: Are the authors in a good position to know the truth of the claim?

If so, they will have . . .

  • examined current, relevant data and secondary sources
  • used appropriate methods to investigate the claim
  • acquired expertise in interpreting these data and methods
  • made a well-reasoned argument
  • minimized the chances of making errors

The best question to ask yourself before using a source:

  • How does the author of this source know the claim is true?

Now, try the questions.

Who is making the claim?

Is the author of the source the same person who is making the claim?

  • Or is the author citing another person's claim? (If so, can you find the original source?)
  • If no author is given, look at the parent publication (magazine, web site, etc.) for clues.

Tips for web pages

  • For the author's name, look at the top or bottom of the text.
  • If a person is not named, the author may be the web site's sponsoring organization.
  • Sometimes, no one seems responsible for the claims. Avoid citing this kind of source!
  • Do a lateral search to see what web sites say about your author.
    • Do a web search, using quotations marks:
      • "Insurance Institute for Highway Safety"
      • "E. O. Wilson"
    • Open some of the search results. 
    • This may help you spot an unreliable (fake news) site.
    • Learn about your author's credentials.

What are the author's credentials? Are they relevant for this claim?

Credentials may include:

  • Academic degrees (in relevant disciplines)
  • Academic affiliations (positions at colleges or universities; memberships in scholarly organizations)
  • Publications (articles or books by the author)
  • Accomplishments & awards

How well do the author's credentials match the claim?

Tips for web pages

  • Academic degrees or affiliations might be listed near the author's name.
  • Also check the end of the article.
  • Look for links like this:  About Us   Contact Us  (usually found on the site's home page)
  • Search the author in the site's search box, or in Google.

What data do the authors use? Do they cite sources?

Different claims require different kinds of data.

  • Claim: In 2005 the government seized 6.9 million pounds of marijuana.
  • Data: Law enforcement statistics from government sources
  • Claim: Smoking marijuana during pregnancy reduces oxygen flow to the fetus.
  • Data: Experimental results from various medical disciplines, published in scholarly journals

Timeliness matters--in some cases more than others.

  • When was the source published?  
  • Did the authors study current data and events?
  • Consider your specific claim. 
    • Medical science advances quickly, so current information is essential.
    • When you study history or literature, timeliness is less important.

Serious authors cite their sources.

  • When they formally cite sources, authors expose themselves to scrutiny and correction from readers. Because of this, these authors try to avoid mistakes.
  • If authors make a claim without citing a source, we expect them to prove the claim is true. If no proof is offered, ask yourself, "How do the authors know this claim is true?" Perhaps they don't.
  • Before serious authors cite a source, they will evaluate the source's credibility first. As readers, we rely upon the good judgment of authors; we can't evaluate every cited source for ourselves. Because of this, the reputation of the author is crucial to the credibility of a source. Another safeguard is the peer review process, which tests the quality of most scholarly articles before they are published.

Tips for web pages

  • The easiest way to cite a web source is to give a link to it. But a link is not enough!
    • Online newspapers, magazines, and blogs often just give links to sources. But when the links go dead, so do their citations.
    • Academic writing requires formal citations for web sources, which adds to the credibility of academic writing.
  • Library databases provide citations for their articles.


Go to the next tab: Bias