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Source Criticism

Source criticism – be aware that this is not used in the same way in English. However, as a Scandinavian university we are writing about this as part of the Scandinavian tradition and then it is the closest we can come to a correct translation.

The critical evaluation of a source gives you an understanding of its credibility, purpose and origin. It is important that you as a student develop a critical approach and that you are able to evaluate and interpret the sources and publications that you want to use in your work.

Who is saying what to whom, why and when?

You may use these five questions as your starting point:

  • Who is saying it?
  • What is being said?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What is the purpose of saying it?
  • When is it being said?

Who is saying it?

Who is the author? Is there an explicit author or publisher? Try estimating their authority in the field:

  • If there is an author/editor:
  • Is the person well-known in their field?
  • Is it a researcher, a journalist or something else?
  • Is the author/editor connected to a college or university? 
  • What else has the author/editor published?
  • Is the author cited in other publications?

Is the information about the author/editor missing? In that case, you should try to find information about the publisher:

If it is an authority, institution or organization:

  • What are the goals, the assignment and the purpose of the organization? 

If there is a publisher:

  • What is the publisher’s main focus?
  • Is the publisher known for publications in this particular field?

If your source is found on a website without an obvious originator:

  • Try decoding the URL. Can you decipher the domain and the country code?
  • Who has created the site? Is it an organization, a seat of learning, a company or an individual?
  • Is there any contact information?
  • What other sites link to this website, and what other sites does this website link to?

What is being said? – Credibility and evaluation

Are the contents credible? Are the facts correct and is the text objective? Does the text have in-text referencing and a reference list? How well does the source cover the subject area?

Who is the target audience?

For whom is the material written? Who is the target audience and does the source fit your purpose?

  • Is the target audience researchers, students, elementary or high school students or the general public?
  • itan academic text or is it popular science or some other genre? Keep in mind that an author can write different types of texts.
  • How can the material be relevant and useful for you? Choose your sources according to your current need for information. Do you need the source for a debate article or do you need literature for the background chapter of a thesis?

What is the purpose of saying it?

What is the purpose of the text? Is it to present research, to inform, debate, present a point of view, market a product, provoke or perhaps entertain?

  • Whose interests are presented in the source?
  • Are there any financial, political or religious interests that may affect the contents?
  • Is the text written in an objective or a subjective way?
  • Does the text present facts or is it an expression of the writer’s own opinions?
  • Are the facts correct?
  • Do any other reliable sources present contradicting information?

When is it being said?

Is the information current – and does it have to be?

  • When was the material produced?
  • Could any facts be out-of-date?
  • Could more recent research exist that affects or contradicts your source?
  • Is the material limited to a certain period of time?
  • Is there a newer edition?
  • Check the year of publication or, if it is a website, when the information was updated.
  • How has society changed since the text was written – and could this affect the way a historical event is described?
  • If you have found the information online – check carefully if it is an unchangeable source (such as an e-book, a report, a journal article, dissertation or thesis) or if your source is found on a website that can be changed or removed.

Movie - Evaluating information sources - a method (4:14)