How to Evaluate Sources

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Many students like to use websites as sources for their research papers. This is fine, but it is important that students evaluate each website to be sure it is an appropriate and valid source of information. 

The MLA Handbook and several other books held by the library offer some great advice on how to evaluate sources. 

What is Evaluating Sources?

Evaluating resources is part of the research process. Students and instructors want to have the most accurate, reliable information possible. This is essential in both the academic world and the business world. Much like most people wouldn't choose a random political candidate, do not choose just any website or resource. Evaluating the source ensures the information contained within is unbiased, accurate, current (if necessary), and something which can be relied upon.

Which Sources should be Evaluated?

The most important types of sources to evaluate are internet sources, and in particular, websites. Books and periodicals must go through various review processes before being published, which increases the possibility that it was written by someone familiar with the subject.When using online journals or online databases, make sure to look for the words "scholarly journal", "peer-reviewed", or "refereed". Those words show that the journal is reliable and articles are placed under the review of other experts in the field in addition to the writer.

Why Evaluate Websites?

Websites, unlike books and periodicals, can be published by anyone at any time, as long as they have the access to the internet and possibly the money to pay for the site. For example, a political candidate could create his or her own website and fill it with stories (true or false) about what they have accomplished. Alternatively, their rival could create a website and fill it with stories (true or false) about how their opponent failed in their promises. Neither site would be very high quality for research because it would be difficult to decipher which has the accurate information. In other words, both would be extremely biased. It would be far more difficult, expensive, and time consuming for a candidate to do the same in book format. 

Also, it is important to evaluate websites because most instructors expect and require it. This is a critical thinking skill that may be extremely useful in the business world as well, allowing for the evaluation information sources before inaccurate information gets passed along to supervisors, co-workers, or clients.

How are Websites Evaluated?

Because websites are the sources that most frequently need evaluating, this guide will focus on evaluating websites. Much of the information, however, will be useful for evaluating any research source if necessary. 


Evaluating for the authority of the author is probably one of the most important parts of evaluating resources. In order to evaluate authority, researchers look for who is responsible for the website.

What to Look For

  • Who is the author of the website? Is it a corporation, a person, a university, or something else?

  • What kind of education or experience does the author have? If it's a person, do they have a degree in the field they're writing about? If not, do they have many years of experience? If it's an organization or corporation, how long have they been in business? Are they considered leaders in their field?

  • Is the author (whether individual, company, organization, or other) well known in the subject covered by the site?

  • If the author is an individual, is the site sponsored or financed by someone else? If so, look into that sponsor as well.

Where to Look

  • Check for an author's information in the copyright statement. This is almost always at the bottom of a website and will have the copyright symbol followed by the year of publication and could contain the name of the author or sponsoring organization.

  • Look at an "About Me/Us" statement. Frequently, websites will have a "About Us" link featured prominently. The link should contain information about the author and may include where he or she went to school or how much experience he or she has in the field. For a company or corporation, it will usually include how long the company has been operating.

  • If the above options are unavailable, look for a "Contact Us" page. This may include information about the person or business. If so, search for them through a search engine, or if it offers an e-mail address or phone number, consider contacting the author and finding out.

Important Considerations

Not all sites will have information about the author available. If there is no information available, consider why that might be. In some cases, it might be because the author has something to hide. Maybe he or she is a hobbyist who knows very little about the information and is simply copying from what others have said. This is not always the case, but a source containing no author information should be taken as a warning and requires further investigation!


Evaluating any source for objectivity is extremely important. By excluding biased information, it is possible to find information that may be more accurate and reliable. When a site is lacking in objectivity, it could be slanted toward one side or the other and probably does not show all of the facts that may be important to the topic.

What to Look For

  • Does the author state the goals for the website? Why was the site created? Is it designed to make you want to buy something? To sway you to one side of an issue? Is it simply there for entertainment? Or is it there to teach the visitor something?

  • Does the information seem valid and well-researched? This will become more apparent when you have already looked at trustworthy sources. If it doesn't seem to be well-researched, then reconsider!

  • Does the website seem to favor one side of an issue, person, product, or idea? Does it ignore the other side of the issue?

  • Does the website write about opposing products, people, or ideas in a negative way? Does it insult or condemn the other products? Does it provide a fair appraisal of both sides?

Where to Look

It's rarely simple to find objectivity or bias. It requires careful reading all of the information provided. Remember to look at the author for authority--if they are a fast food company, information relating to the benefits of fast food is likely to be biased. Everyone has opinions, of course, but see if they treat the other side justly.

Important Considerations

A quick tip for helping look for bias is to look at the domain name for the URL. If it ends with .edu (educational institutions), .gov (non-military government sites), .mil (military), or .org (nonprofit organizations), it may be more reliable. Endings such as .com (commercial), .info (information), and .net (network) can be purchased by anyone and should be considered more carefully. Having one of the above endings (such as .edu) does not mean evaluating the site can be skipped. It is just an aid to finding where the information is coming from.


Evaluating for quality is key to finding reliable websites. If the website is poorly written, then it may not be reliable. In general, an expert in a field will have some familiarity with writing about his or her subject. Also, a person devoted to the topic is more likely to spend time making a logical, well-designed website.

What to Look For

  • Is the information organized in a logical manner? Was it easy to find the information being sought?

  • Has the author used good grammar? Are there spelling or typographical errors?

  • Are any graphics clear, appropriate, and relevant?

  • Is the information complete, accurate, and presented logically?

Where to Look

Like objectivity, quality is evaluated throughout the site. Look at the design of the website, at the navigation, at any graphics, images or tables, and at the text.

Important Considerations

While looking at a website that is field specific, such as nursing or industrial systems, look at the use of industry-related words. Are they used properly? Are they spelled properly? Are they relevant? An experienced author would know how and when to use such words and that can hint at the quality of the overall site.


Evaluating for coverage is not as essential as the previous three areas, but it is still a good exercise. Coverage is looking at whether or not the site offers all of the information needed to make an informed decision or complete research.

What to Look For

  • Does the website add new information to what has already been learned?

  • Does it include supplemental information that may be pertinent to the topic? If not, does it give enough information to support an argument?

Where to Look

Look for coverage by reviewing the information the site has available. For example, a website on airport security that does not include a recent list of how many ounces of liquids can be carried on may not have full coverage. In that case, it would be necessary to find an additional site to supply that information--in which case, it may be better to use the other site.

Important Considerations

Some websites cover only the most important parts of the topic. In those cases, find extra information from another source. If possible, continue looking for a site that covers as much of the information as is needed.


Currency can be an essential element to look for, depending on what the topic is. This is looking at how recently the information has been updated, and how frequently it is updated.

What to Look For

  • Does the website have a date on it? If so, is it a recent date?

  • If looking at an article or something similar posted on a website, does that have a date? How recent is it?

  • Does the site look outdated, and include references to obsolete technology (e.g., beepers, floppy disks, etc)?

Where to Look

The best place to look when searching for information about a site's updating frequency is the bottom of the page. The copyright symbol is often followed by a year or even an actual date. Content posted through blogs or similar types of websites may have a date and time attached to the posting. If there is no date where the copyright information is, check on other pages, like "About" or the home page. They may also have dates. It may not be a day, month, and year, but even a year can be helpful.

Important Considerations

Not every field of study needs to have extremely current information. When writing about literature or history, it may not be as important, because classic literature does not change (though opinions of it can), and history does not change. On the other hand, writing about science or medicine needs to have the most current information because new research is conducted every day and things change quickly. Information in those fields may be inaccurate because the website has not been updated in three or four years.


Lastly is the relevance of the website. This may seem like common sense, but it is important to consciously evaluate it. Relevance in this instance refers to how applicable the content is to you and your assignment.

What to Look For

  • Is the content of the website related to the topic? Is all of it, or just a page or paragraph?

  • Is the content and design appropriate for your age group and that of the reader? Or, is it appropriate for the topic?

  • Does it meet the requirements of the assignment? If the instructor asks for peer-reviewed information, a website is unlikely to fit that requirement.

Where to Look

Like with many of the other criteria for evaluating websites, the relevance to can be found within the content and design of the site. Look at the navigation, treating it like a table of contents or index. Does it have anything relating to the topic? Look at the graphics--are they appropriate for your age group and topic?

Important Considerations

For a college-level student, a site designed for high school- or elementary school-age children may not be appropriate for the majority of assignments. But, for a paper for a class in Early Childhood Education or Child Development, that website may be appropriate if it has necessary information. Use good judgment, and when in doubt, speak to a librarian or to your instructor!