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Evaluating Sources

Evaluating Sources

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches how to evaluate a source for use in a research essay.

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Video Transcription

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to talk about evaluating sources. From the importance of doing so, to how to actually go about it. Then we'll look at an example source and model an analysis of it.

There are two criteria a researcher should look at when evaluating a source-- how credible it is, and how relevant or useful it is, or will be to the essay. In order to accomplish this, writers need to preform a critical evaluation. Which requires a detached, even skeptical perspective that expects the source to prove its credibility and value through logic, and through accurate and effective use of other sources, and a rhetorical appeals.

Writers who think of their potential source as being guilty until proven innocent are on the right track. Though more specifically, it's non-credible until proven credible. But why be so harsh, so skeptical, so critical? Because your readers will have similarly tough-to-meet expectations. And if you want your essay to live up to them, you can't afford to use sources that don't. It's also a matter of personal pride, no matter their other reasons for writing.

You'll want to create a successful text. And for research essays this means, among other things, using only credible and effective sources. It's also important to perform this kind of critical evaluation. Because doing so will help empower you to think independently and skillfully on any subject, in any situation, and given any text, which is definitely a good thing.

In order to effectively evaluate a source, you'll need to use engaged reading strategies, being an active rather than passive reader. One who thinks about the text's rhetorical situation and enters into the conversation with it by taking notes, underlining, and thinking about our own responses to the text, including its ideas, arguments, support, and style-- that and an effective process. Experienced writers and researchers have their own methods for actually performing an evaluation. But here are some steps that virtually all effective writers of research papers do in one way or another.

First, they scan the source. Looking at it quickly to determine if it will be relevant to their essay and working thesis, but also looking for signs that the source isn't incredible. Things like being poorly written, having a lack of sources, or being inappropriate in terms of tone, structure, or some other criteria. And once they've determined that the source is worth investigating further, they use the engaged reading strategies we've been talking about to read and analyze it.

There's some specific questions researchers should ask a potential source at this point. We should ask when the source was published, and if it's possible that new information would be more accurate or more useful. Or conversely, if an older source of information might be more established and trustworthy.

We should, as always, consider the rhetorical situation. Who is the author's intended audience? And what is his or her purpose for writing? In what historical or cultural situation was the source written? And what is the author's personal background of potential biases? And how are these elements of the rhetorical situation evident in and relevant to the source?

We should also ask whether the source has been peer-reviewed, or if it's gone through some other editorial process. And if not, does the source still seem credible? Why or why not? And even if it has gone through an editorial process, we should still be on the lookout for any warning signs that the source isn't credible as there are no guarantees even with academic peer-reviewed sources.

Now, in order to get a better sense of the kind of evaluation we're talking about, let's practice. Here's the selection, let's say, from an online blog. Let's also say that we found it while conducting research for a cultural anthropology class, in which we are assigned to write a paper on the treatment of one of a list of exotic places through the media.

We chose Hawaii. And so we found this blog, which is, as you'll see, performing a critique of the movie North Shore, which we were considering using as a primary source. Now, pause the video and read these two paragraphs, looking as you do for relevance and signs of credibility, or the lack thereof. Also consider the rhetorical situation, or what you can see of it.

So as you should be able to see, this is a secondary source. And it seems to be relevant, even if we aren't sure what exactly our thesis will be. We know it's got to be something about how Hawaii as a whole is being represented by the movie, since that's pretty much required by the assignment. And this blog entry seems to be doing just that kind of analysis.

So assuming we decide that it's credible enough, we should be able to make pretty effective use of it. Let's say that we also know, because of the way blogs are published, that this entry was originally posted a year and a half ago. So it was a fair time ago, but still a long time since the movie came out, right?

It makes me question not only why it was published then, but what earlier reviews and analyses have said about the movie. Unfortunately, this source doesn't reference any of them. In fact, it doesn't refer to anything but the movie itself and the writer's personal and familial experience with the subject. So that's a red flag as far as credibility goes, especially because we know that blogs generally don't have any kind of editorial process to go through.

But other than that, I don't see much in the way of warning signs. Sure, the blog's analysis of the movie is a bit summary, a bit surface, but it seems well-written. And it does a pretty good job of questioning some of the deeper assumptions behind North Shore's creation. And questioning assumptions is generally a good sign in a source, since it usually, but not always, translates to the writer's questioning of his or her own assumptions, too.

That being said, it's hard to really get a read on the rhetorical situation about the source. It's a blog, so we know that the purpose is most likely a combination of wanting to inform and entertain the reader, for which this entry's tone and style are pretty appropriate. But we can't really guess as to the writer's cultural and historical background, besides that we know his father used to surf at the North Shore. But for whatever the reason, he never showed the writer the movie until many years after it came out. What exactly we should make of that, I'm not sure.

So all in all, I'd say that this source comes out on the credible side, if not particularly far from that imaginary center line. Still, we should continue our research and see if we can't find some more secondary sources. That way, assuming that this source's claims and analysis agree with whatever else we find, we can use the source to add color, and hopefully some analysis to our essay.

So what did we learn today? We learned about evaluating sources. From why it's important, to how to actually do it, including an example analysis. We should now be prepared to read and engage with whatever our own research digs up. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.