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Evaluating Sources for STEM students

This guide is designed to help STEM students asses and navigate information sources.

Authority Is Constructed and Contextual

Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required. Readers should view authority with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought.

Key Aspects of Authority

  1. What is the context? The given context and audience define the characteristics of authoritative evidence.
  2. Use the right tool/source for the job! How a source is used determines its authority. The practitioner must always consider the contextual evaluation of sources.
  3. Whose voices are being left out of this conversation? Recognize that traditional notions of granting authority might hinder the diversity of ideas and worldviews that get heard and shared.
  4. What are you bringing to this conversation? Evaluate sources using a variety of criteria in order to cultivate a skeptical stance and self-awareness of your own biases and world views.
  5. It’s not all relative! No matter what the context, there are going to be better and less good sources.

Strategies to Evaluate Authority

Citation Chaining: Look at whom the authority is citing and who is citing them. Citations are one way to follow the conversation that occurs among individuals interested in a common research topic. In many cases a source is cited often because other scholars or scientists believe the study provided useful information. However, a high citation count does not always mean a study is unflawed or highly regarded. In some cases a study may be cited frequently because researchers have raised questions about it. A careful citation analysis can give you a fuller understanding of how a source has been part of larger discussions.

Consensus: Not all experts in a field agree, but there may be a general consensus on a topic. Statements or articles produced by the national or international organization that represents a given field usually represent such consensus.

Audience Analysis: Consider which authorities are likely to influence or persuade the audience you are targeting with your research project. Think about the different types of authority you might choose to convince different audiences, such as your parents, your friends, your teacher or professor, or your city council. Even for audiences that seem similar (e.g. university professors who work in different disciplines), you may be more persuasive with different types of authority. Would you choose the same authority if your audience was a sociology professor, a chemistry professor, or a theatre professor?

Adapted from the New Literacies Alliance's "Question Authority":

How Credibility is Contextual