After yesterday's post, I thought we should talk more about how to find credible sources of information. In our climate of "alternative facts" and "fake news," this practice is more important than ever.

I think it's safe to say that in most cases, when we authors need to know something, we look it up online. So how do we determine whether a web source is credible? These factors can help us decide:

  • The source writer's credentials

  • Good signs

  • The author has a degree, extensive experience, or specialized training in the subject they're discussing.

  • They cite credible sources to back up their arguments.

  • Bad signs

  • The source doesn't include any citations, an "about the author" section, or other evidence that the writer knows what they're talking about.

  • The sponsor of the website where you found the source

  • Good signs

  • The site is run by a government, educational, or professional organization.

  • There's a vetting process for content contributors (e.g., they have to belong to the organization).

  • The sponsor typically stays neutral in political matters and has a history of professionalism.

  • Problematic signs. These aren't automatic disqualifiers, but they're clues that you should evaluate information from these sources with extra care.

  • The site is run by a private individual.

  • The sponsor (whether an individual or a group) has strong political leanings.

  • Bad signs

  • The sponsor has a history of spreading misleading or outright false information. 

  • Anyone can post or edit content on the site (*cough* Wikipedia *cough*).

  • The website's design

  • Good signs

  • The site has a clean, professional look and feel to it.

  • Bad signs

  • The site has wild, distracting, or hard-to-read animations, images, backgrounds, fonts, etc.

  • The writing itself

  • Good signs

  • The source uses correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.

  • Its facts and arguments make sense.

  • It uses neutral language and tone and doesn't rely on emotional appeals to make its case.

  • If applicable, it acknowledges opposing ideas and their valid points and presents evidence for why the author's argument is a better choice.

  • Bad signs

  • The source makes extreme claims without offering sufficient (or any) supporting evidence.

  • It presents as fact statements that you know are false.

  • It relies on emotionally loaded words and arguments.

  • If applicable, it trash-talks opposing ideas and ignores any valid points they might have.

Of course, we're all human and make mistakes. But by using these guidelines, you'll have a much better chance of avoiding poor sources and identifying credible ones for your research.

Did I miss any criteria? In the comments, share any other guidelines you use to evaluate a source's credibility.

(Thanks to Nick Morrison for sharing their work on Unsplash.)