4 Tutorials that teach Evaluating Sources
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Evaluating Sources

Evaluating Sources

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will explain how to evaluate electronic sources.

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Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. Thank you for joining me. We're going to discuss how you evaluate your sources when you're doing research in sociology and in other social sciences in general.

So there are three issues with evaluating sources. We're specifically going to look at evaluating internet sources in this tutorial. And there are three issues which come up with this topic-- issues of authority, potential bias, and citations.

So if we're going to focus on research on the internet, like I said, research on the internet is a good way to give you a preliminary background and knowledge on some topic that you intend to study and do elaborate research on. Of course, serious academic research needs to be obtained through using books, through going out an gathering empirical data on your own, and through using peer-reviewed academic journals. But the web is a really good place to start, especially if you don't know that much about some topic. You might start gathering information on the internet.

Suppose you're doing this. You need to understand issues of authority. An authority is a person or organization with recognized and official expertise on some topic, on something, or in some particular field. Modern society is just full of authority figures. We've divided knowledge and knowledge production into various offices with its own authority.

We have doctors. We have certain professors and very specialized authorities on every topic imaginable. So authorities then are no small topic.

But not all authority figures are equal. Let's look at global warming, for example. Both sides of the global warming debate can point to many different authorities that they say support their claim. But are they really the same? They all can't be exactly right, but yet they're authority. So it introduces an area of uncertainty.

And authority figures can be motivated by bias or having a vested interest for or against a side. So suppose, to return to the global warming example, what if you're interested in doing research on global warming and the environmentally motivated social movements that have sprung up in response to issues of global warming. You're a sociologist interested in that topic, and you want to learn more about global warming.

So you Google. You find a geologist-- say, Phil Johnson's his name-- who has a website, a blog, and a book that all state why global warming has absolutely no connection to human industrial activity. OK, well Phil Johnson's an authority figure. He's got a PhD in geology. He probably knows what he's talking about with respect to climate change-- credible enough, all right.

So then you might dig a little deeper, do a little more research on Phil, look at his book, look at his career, his biography, and find out that he worked as a prospector, prospecting oil fields for ExxonMobil for 20 years, the first 20 years of his career. Well then, all of the sudden, wait a second. Phil might be biased by that contact and influence with ExxonMobil.

So is he then an authority? You might question his standing as an authority figure on account of potential bias. All right, so then you're concerned. You dig a little deeper still, and you look at where Phil got his information.

You look at his citations, which is stating where you got your knowledge and where you got your information on some topic. And you find that Phil primarily cites studies that have been funded by ExxonMobil itself and carried out by private research firms, not research universities.

So then wait a second. All right, if Phil, he's an authority figure. He's got a PhD in geology. But he might be motivated by bias, having worked for Exxon Mobile and carrying out and citing research that has been conducted by private research firms. And the research was funded by ExxonMobil.

So then what's the conclusion? Well, maybe we shouldn't trust Phil as an authority figure. Maybe we shouldn't trust his research as a source for our knowledge. So we constantly have to be thinking about the sources we use.

Like I said, academics do their research and fill their citations with books, with peer-reviewed journal articles-- peer-reviewed meaning they go through a process where everybody looks at it to make sure that it's not crap, essentially. And in any one article, for any 30-page article that a sociologist will write, there will probably be a hundred citations in that article. So it's very thorough.

Well, this was an introduction to evaluating sources on the internet, particularly, in reflection of these three concerns-- authority, bias, and citations. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know

Having recognized and official expertise about something, or in some field.


Having a prejudice for or against a particular side.


Stating where you got your knowledge and facts.