Evaluating the quality and credibility of your research
Finding evidence that answers a question is only the first part of the research process. Evaluating the quality and credibility of the research is an important step. Inevitably, as students gather research, they evaluate the sources superficially. However, evaluating the quality and credibility of the research is more subtle and complicated than just determining the source of the evidence.
Academic research is not much different in the sense that different researchers, considering the same or similar evidence, often arrive at different conclusions. Academic research rarely provides clear answers in the sense of definitively knowing the “rights” and “wrongs” about some issue. Not all academics think that computer hacking is wrong (or right), that the solution to commercial over-fishing is strict international control, or that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby depicts the connection between material goods and the American dream. Rather, there are debates about these issues, differences of interpretation and opinion that result from different researchers looking at the same evidence.
Furthermore, the debates about differences of opinion on how to interpret evidence are good and healthy because these discussions further our understanding of complex issues. If we all agreed that something was true, then there would be no point in conducting research and writing about it. Indeed, if we all agreed about everything and had all of our questions answered as well as we thought possible, there would be no point to education at all!
- • Who wrote it?
- • What do you think motivated the writer?
- • Where was it published?
- • When was it written?
- Is there an author named with the evidence?
If the evidence does not name the author, it might still be reliable, especially if the type of source that published the article is reputable. However, most credible and reliable publications tell readers who wrote the articles they contain.
On Web pages and other Internet-based sources, it can sometimes be tricky to find the name of the Web page’s author. Many web sites don’t name an author, which, given the nature of the Web, should send up red flags for you as a researcher regarding the credibility of the evidence. But like print publications, more credible Web pages will include the name of the page’s writer. Be sure to look for the writer’s name throughout the particular page (including the bottom) and related pages within the Web site. Additional questions to ask are…
- What are the qualifications of the author?
- Does he or she seem to be an expert in the field?
- Have he or she written about this topic before?
- Are there other experiences that seem to uniquely qualify him or her as a reliable and credible source on this topic?
Many academic publications will give a lot of detail about their authors, including their degrees and academic training, the institution where they work (if they are a college professor or instructor), and other publications they have had in the past. Popular sources tend to include less information about their writers, though they too will often indicate in a byline (where the writer’s name is listed in a magazine or newspaper article) if the writer is a reporter, contributing editor, or editor for a particular subject.
Credible web sources will also describe the qualifications of the source’s author or authors. If an author’s name on a Web site is provided, but his/her qualifications on the research subject is not provided, a student should be suspicious about what that research has to say.
After students have conducted a bit of research, they might find themselves coming across the same authors writing similar articles in different publications. Students might also find different publications referring to the author or her work, which would suggest that the author is indeed reliable and credible in her field. After all, if other articles and writers refer positively to a particular writer or her articles again and again, then it seems likely that the often-referred-to writer is credible.
Understanding and trusting the expertise of the author of the evidence is probably the most crucial test of credibility and reliability of that evidence.
What motivated the writer?
- Is the writer identified with a particular organization or group that might have a specific interest in the subject of the writing?
This can often be the source of conscious or unconscious bias. An obvious example: a writer who is identified as a member of the National Riflemen’s Association, which represents a variety of Americans particularly interested in protecting the right to own guns, will certainly have a different view on gun ownership than a member of The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, an organization working to enact gun control legislation.
Students need to be particularly careful with Web-based sources of research when considering the writer’s affiliation with different groups or organizations. There have been numerous incidents where Web page writers falsely claimed their Web pages were affiliated with particular groups or causes.
- Does the writer identify himself or herself with an explicit political group or party?
Of course, while it is important to consider why a writer wrote about her subject and to think about how her motivations impact how she wrote about his or her subject, having a particular bias or motivation doesn’t automatically lead to a lack of credibility or reliability.
Where was it published?
- Was the piece of writing published in an academic or non-academic source? A book, a journal, a magazine, etc.?
Generally speaking, academic sources are considered more credible than non-academic sources, and print-based sources are generally considered more credible than web-based sources.
But there are some more subtle tests of credibility and reliability concerning where a piece of research was published. For example, single-authored or co-authored scholarly books on a particular subject might be more regarded as more credible than a scholarly journal article because books go into much greater detail on topics than journal articles.
When was it written?
Last, but far from least, the date of publication can dramatically effect the credibility of your research. Obviously, this is especially important for date-sensitive research topics. If you were writing a research project about the Internet and the World Wide Web, chances are any research older than about 1990 or so would be of limited use since the Web literally did not exist before 1990.
But other potentially less obvious topics of research have date sensitive components to them. For example, if a student were doing research on cigarette smoking or drunk driving, she would have to be careful about evaluating the credibility of research from the 1970s or 1960s or earlier since cultural “norms” in the United States for both smoking and drinking have changed a great deal.
Knowing (or rather, not knowing) the date of publication of a piece of research is yet another thing to be worried about when evaluating the credibility of Web-based sources. Many Web sites do not include any information about the date of publication or the date when the page was last updated. This means that students have no way of knowing when the information on that dateless page was published.