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Evaluating Online Sources: 2. Investigate

SIFT Step 2: Investigate the Source

This step is where you start to answer the questions you asked yourself at STOP: What type of content is this? Who wrote and published it? Does the information appear to be reliable and appropriate?

Investigating the source does not require in-depth research and analysis. Rather, this step is a quick check into the expertise and agenda of the online content in question.  

This involves a method called "lateral reading," which suggests that users "get off the page" to investigate a source through other websites (such as Wikipedia). It only takes about a minute or two, and enables you to learn about what others have written about your source (rather than solely relying on the source itself). 

Please watch the following short video [2:44] to learn more this effective strategy: 

Search Strategy: Control + F

By clicking Control + F on your keyboard (Command + F for Mac) you can search for specific words or phrases within a document or webpage. 

This saves you time when searching for keywords during the SIFT process. 

Below is a brief video [0:37] on how to carry out Control + F. 

Acknowledgements

Note: This SIFT method guide was adapted from Michael Caulfield's "Check, Please!" course at http://lessons.checkplease.cc. The text and media is (for the most part) CC-BY, and free for reuse and revision. The authors ask that people copying this course leave this note intact, so that students and instructors can find their way back to the original (periodically updated) version if necessary. 

The SIFT LibGuide at https://guides.lib.wayne.edu/sift (Wayne State University Library System), and the OER book Introduction to College Research (Butler, et al.) were also adapted in the creation of this guide.

How to Investigate: Just Add Wikipedia

The video below [3:33] further explains how to use Wikipedia as a tool to check the credibility of sources.

Two questions to keep in mind after you "Just add Wikipedia"

  1. Is the site or organization I am researching what I thought it was?
  2. If not, does it make it more or less trustworthy?

If you thought information was from a reliable news site and it turns out to be from a conspiracy site, that should surprise you. And given your new knowledge, your initial impression of the trustworthiness should diminish. If you thought you were looking at a minor, unknown newspaper and it turns out to be a multi-award winning national newspaper of record, maybe your assessment of its trustworthiness increases. The effects on trust are of course contextual as well: a small local paper may be a great source for local news, but a unreliable source for health advice or international politics (this issue will be covered in further depth in the next section).

More About Using Wikipedia as a Tool

Wikipedia is broadly misunderstood by faculty and students alike. While Wikipedia must be approached with caution, especially with articles that are covering contentious subjects or evolving events, it is often the best source to get a consensus viewpoint on a subject.

Because the Wikipedia community has strict rules about sourcing facts to reliable sources, and because authors must adopt a neutral point of view, its articles are often the best available introduction to a subject on the web.

The focus on sourcing all claims has another beneficial effect. If you can find a claim expressed in a Wikipedia article, you can almost always follow the footnote on the claim to a reliable source. Scholars, reporters, and students can all benefit from using Wikipedia to quickly find authoritative sources for claims.

Article: Can we trust Wikipedia? 1.4 billion people can't be wrong

Reputation and Expertise

Evaluating expertise (ie, what makes a source or person credible) can be difficult. The following video [4:40] discusses how to evaluate "expert" sources: 

  1. Start your investigation with Wikipedia.
  2. If the source does not have a Wikipedia page, try a Google News search to see what reliable sources say about them.
  3. If a published scholar, see if they have been cited by other experts on Google Scholar.