Evaluating the Credibility of Popular Sources

Ninety percent of everything is crap.
— Thomas Sturgeon, American sci-fi author

Given the vast amount of information on the world wide web, it can be tricky to evaluate which sites, articles, or books contain reliable information about a given topic. Is that Tumblr page with the images you want to use accurate? How about the .edu site you came across? What about that first hit on Google that seems to have exactly the information you're looking for?

Here's a quick checklist of questions to ask about a source. Click on each question to jump to more information:


Can you identify the author, creator, or institution responsible for the site?

Since people often write anonymously on the internet, you won't always be able to find author information. If you can, though, that usually means you're onto a good source - especially if the author has been interested in and writing about the topic for awhile.

If you can find author information, it is also helpful to think about who is writing the source - are they a professional (paid) historian? Are they an "enthusiast" (unpaid, but potentially knowledgable)? Are they part of an advocacy group (that might influence their POV)?

Author info is usually in headers, footers, or sidebars. (See Screenshot of "Eternal Egypt"). It's also worth checking "About" pages when available (like this one from ancient.eu).

 

When was the site last updated?

Authors and organizations who maintain the information on their site are more likely to be knowledgeable and invested in the topic. They're also more likely to include new information about a topic and up-to-date links to materials from other sources.

Check the "About" page or the footer for copyright/last updated info.

If it's a blog or site that allows comments, find out when the most recent post or burst of comments appeared.

 

Is the site author/creator clear about where they found their information? Can you follow the hyperlinks, footnotes, or references to find the original information?

You might begin by asking whether the author is clear about what is their own work and what is the work of others. Do they link to or reference the material of other authors as evidence for the points their making? Are those materials findable?

Even if the site or article contains original research, you should be able to follow the trail of their footnotes and references. The All Mesopotamia Tumblr, for instance, does a great job linking, tagging, and acknowledging where material originated.

If you can't verify where sources originated, you'll want to proceed with caution. Lack of citations means you can't easily verify the material.

 

What is the purpose of the site? (Educational? Commercial? School project? Political? Religious?)

This is an important question for identifying the perspective of your sources. Bias doesn't always mean a source is entirely inaccurate (as we'll see with Herodotus and other sources this semester). But competing interests can detract from the content.

For instance, if the purpose of a site is religious, it may mean that the primary purpose is instruction for adherents to the religion or conversion of people who aren't practitioners. That doesn't always mean the information is wrong, but it can mean the information is incomplete.

 

Who is the audience for the site? (Children? Young adults? Adults? Experts? Amateurs?)

Since you are writing blog posts as part of a college class, you'll want to look primarily for sources aimed at adults or at least useful to an adult audience (such as the Crash Courses). You can also use this question to test the purpose of the site.

 

Does the site reference conspiracy theories, aliens, or other sensational theories (apocalypses, the reality of mythical beings, aliens, giants, dinosaurs...)?

Best to avoid sources that are focused on the sensational or unverifiable. Some sites mix fact and fiction and contain reliable information, but they make it hard to sort through the credible and sensational by presenting all theories (regardless of evidence) as equally valid.

Believe it or not, this criteria largely rules out use of the History Channel and Ancient Origins. Both sites look pretty legit, but the stock in trade of both sites has been exactly this sort of sensational stuff. That doesn't mean everything on these sites is inaccurate, but I would recommend seeking other sources of information first.

Heather Bennett

Professor, feminist, sci-fi geek. Historian interested in pedagogy, technology, gender/sexuality, archives, pop culture, medicine, intellectual history, world history.