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Climate Change & Human History (GEO2056/HIST2056): Evaluating Sources

Identifying Stakeholders

A stakeholder is someone who has an investment or interest in a given topic or issue. For instance, if the topic is climate control, some stakeholders would be:

  • Climatologists
  • Ecologists
  • The public
  • Energy Industry
  • Oil companies
  • The government

Knowing who the stakeholders are allows you to evaluate why the information was produced, and who it is trying to influence. (For instance is an article written by a climatologist about the impact of greenhouse gas emissions going to have the same stakeholders as an article written by an oil company about the benefits of heating with oil?)

If you're not sure who the stakeholders may be for an issue:

  • Visit reputable news sites and read current news on the topic
  • Identify the author's connection to the topic
  • Try one of these databases:

Is it biased?

Most news sources won't say whether they hold a liberal or a conservative bias, but a bias in reporting can drastically alter the way the media reports a story. These sites help determine actual facts and media bias.

Is it a hoax?

Scholarly vs. Popular

Scholarly Articles Popular Articles
Authorship Scholars/experts in a field. Authors are always named and their institutional affiliation is given. Staff writers or journalists.
Publisher University presses, professional associations, research organizations. For profit corporations.
Review Peer review process by other experts in the field of study. Fact-checker and/or editor.
Audience Researchers, scholars, other experts. General public.
Content/Length Usually longer, focusing on a research study, or a review of research literature in a field. Often shorter, with a more general focus.
Language Technical, discipline specific terminology. Written for a general reader with easier vocabulary.
Sources Cited in a bibliography adhering to a specific citation style (MLA, APA, etc.) Usually not cited, and when they are, are not generally standardized.
Structure Usually includes: abstract, literature review, methodology, results, conclusion, and bibliography. Specific formats are not followed.
Advertising Some. Copious.

Evaluating Websites

Evaluating websites can be a tricky business. Whereas books and articles clearly state authors, and very often their credentials and sources, the web is an open content medium, meaning ANYone can publish ANYthing. This includes highly regarded professionals and experts, people trying to sell you something (a product, an opinion, an agenda), and people just using the web as a place to post their opinions.

It takes a careful eye to determine if content on the web is reliable enough to cite in an academic paper. Some important considerations:

  • Authority - Who wrote the page and what are their credentials?
  • Accuracy - Is the information on the page actually correct? How can you tell?
  • Objectivity - Is the page expressing an opinion, or trying to sell you something?
  • Currency - When was the last time this information was updated?
  • Coverage - How in-depth is the content and to what other content does it link?

Web search engines such as Google can be a powerful research tool that helps you find legislative data, statistics, policy reports, and more. Here are some tips to find the good stuff:

Know your domains:

The end of a web address (URL), after the dot, is the domain. For example, www.fitchburgstate.edu, edu is the domain. You can use domains to filter your results. 

Common domains are:

.com - Commercial site - Sites using this domain name are usually commercial companies. The information they provide is generally going to shed a positive light on the product(s) or service(s) they promote. While this information might not be false, you might be getting only part of the picture as they have a monetary incentive behind the information they are providing you.

.edu - educational sites - Sites using this domain name are schools ranging from kindergarten to higher education. If it is from an academic department or research center at a educational institution, it can generally be taken as credible. On the otherside, students' personal Web sites are not usually monitored by the school and generally not taken as credible.

.gov - government sites - Sites using this domain name are federal governments. For example all branches of the United States government use this domain. Information such as Census statistics, Congressional hearings, and Supreme Court rulings would be included in sites with this domain. The information is considered to be from a credible source.

.org - non-profit sites - Sites using this domain name are non-profit organizations. Organizations such as the PBS (Public Broadcasting System) use this domain suffix. Generally, the information in these types of sites is credible and unbiased, but there are organizations that strongly advocate specific points of view over others, such as the National Rifle Association and Planned Parenthood. You need to assess .org sites carefully to determine whether you  use it or not.

Google domain filtering:

Add the words "site:.gov" (or org/edu/com/etc.) to the end of your Google search. Use a semicolon to separate domains.

E-Learning & Instruction Librarian

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Linda LeBlanc
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