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Evaluating claims you find on web sites: D. Publication Type

What is a credible source: a checklist

PUBLICATION TYPES: Does the process of publication "build-in" quality control?

Information comes in various "packages" (or publication types):

  • Printed books
  • Newspapers
  • Online blog entries
  • Scholarly journals
  • Etc.

Different publication types have different characteristics. These give us clues to the credibility of the information they contain.

One publication type, the Scholarly journal, has a well known quality control system, known as the peer review process. 

What is peer review?

Expert researchers in an academic discipline, such as medicine or sociology, report their research findings in scholarly journals. Over time, the articles published in a journal form a serious written conversation among the experts. To ensure quality, many scholarly journals require peer review of articles before they are published.  A peer reviewer is simply another expert in the same academic field or discipline as the author.  Prior to publication, the reviewer looks at the article's significance, method, and possible bias.  Articles that don't meet the standards are not published.  Many articles are published only after revisions. This "hurdle" is a form of quality control that we all benefit from.

At well-known journals, many authors compete for a limited number of publication slots, and this also serves to increase quality.

Now, try the questions.

Publication types--indicators of credibility

What type of publication is your source? The web includes all these types.

  • Scholarly sources
    • Example:   Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology
    • Purpose:   To discover knowledge through systematic study in an academic discipline
    • Audience:  Experts in the discipline write for other experts
    • Hint:          Scholarly articles formally cite all their sources.
    • Positive:    Peer-reviewed articles have built-in credibility.
    • Downside: Difficult to understand. Usually focused on extremely specific topics.
  • Popular sources
    • Example:   TIME magazine
    • Purpose:   To inform readers in an interesting or entertaining way or for some practical "How to" purpose.
    • Audience:  Journalists and invited authors write for non-experts.
    • Positive:    Interesting, and easy to read; often has graphics.
    • Downside: Topics can be oversimplified or sensationalized, in order to grab an audience.
  • News sources
    • Example:   The New York Times    or     NPR: National Public Radio
    • Purpose:   To inform readers on current events in an objective and timely way.
    • Audience:  Journalists and invited authors write for non-experts who are curious about current events.
    • Positive:    Reporters get to the heart of emerging stories. They are also expected to be objective. 
    • Downside: Written soon after the events, so they lack the perspective that time provides.
    • [Note: news sources also publish opinion articles meant to persuade readers, not simply inform them.]
  • Reference sources
    • Example:   Encyclopedia Britannica Online    or    Wikipedia.org
    • Purpose:   To get the reader "up to speed" on an unfamiliar topic, with an overview of key established facts
    • Audience:  Non-specialists. Author characteristics varies widely by publication.
    • Positive:    Good overviews allow readers to go outside their specialty.
    • Downside: The overviews are very helpful, but they won't provide much depth or detail.
  • Commercial sources
    • Example:   Apple.com    or   ExxonMobil.com
    • Purpose:   To attract customers (or investors).
    • Audience:  Anyone who has a need for the product or service.
    • Downside: The desire to sell confronts companies with a natural conflict of interest. But they also want to maintain their reputation.

Tips for web pages

  • Although some scholarly journal articles are available for free on the web, most are found only in library databases.
  • Weigh the credibility of web pages very carefully. Traditional publication types have the advantage of being archived and retrievable, whereas web pages can disappear or change at any time.  Because of this, web pages may not be open to correction, compared to traditional publication types. When a source is open to correction, its authors are motivated to get their facts straight.
  •  At the same time, many web pages are very credible. Look especially for authors with relevant credentials and sponsors that are respected organizations.

Who is the publisher or sponsor of this web page?

Tips for web pages:   

Authors are primarily responsible for their claims, but the groups that publish (or sponsor) a web site are also involved. Their reputations may depend on the quality of what is published. Publishers who value their reputations have a lot to lose, so they may provide some quality control.

  • The web page might be self-published, which means that only the author decides what is published.
  • Many sites are owned or sponsored by a company, school, or non-profit organization.
  • Magazines and journals have web sites and publish articles on web pages.
    • axios.com
    • theatlantic.com

Tips

  • Look for the sponsor's name in a copyright statement, often at the bottom of the page: (©2009 by Time/Life, Inc.).
  • Get a "second opinion" from other websites.
    • Do a web search for the sponsor or publisher, using quotations marks:
      • "axios.com"
      • "the atlantic"
    • Look for a Wikipedia article, but check other sites, too.
    • This may help you spot an unreliable (fake news) site.

Check the domain of the web page.

Tips for web pages:  

Example:  https://pima.edu/academics-programs/academic-support/library/copyright.html

  • This web page is on a Pima Community College server. Its top level domain is .edu.

The following four domains are restricted to certain kinds of institutions. This can be reassuring, because we know who we are dealing with.

  • .edu          Only for U.S. colleges and universities
  • .gov          Only for U.S. government entities (federal, state, and local)
  • .mil            Only for U.S. military branches
  • .museum  Only for museums.

Other domains can be used by anyone.  People buy domains for their own web sites.

  • .com  is often for commercial/business sites, but not always.
  • .org   is usually for non-profit sites, but not always.

Is the article (or page) you are viewing an original publication, or is it republished from another source?

Tips for web pages

Remember, the original author is ultimately responsible for the claims. At the same time, the author who is citing the original work of others has responsibility for evaluating its credibility.

  • Republished content

Sometimes a site will republish an article from another publication. 

  • Newswire services (e.g., Reuters or Associated Press) sell content that is republished by many news sites.
  • Bloggers often "paste in" large quotations from someone else's writing. These quotations may not be carefully cited.
  • Journals and Magazines
    • Sometimes these are web-only publications
    • But often a magazine is published also in print/paper format (or they have a history of print publication)

Your final verdict

In summary, mull over the following points.

  • Does the claim seem clear and reasonable?
  • How do the authors know the claim is true? Are they in a good position to know the truth?
  • Are the authors properly motivated to tell the truth objectively?
  • Does the publishing process provide quality control?

Can you answer yes to all these? If so, then you probably have a credible source for your claim!

That doesn't guarantee that they claim is correct. Mistakes happen all the time. But you are justified in believing so.

Congratulations!