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Composition: Evaluating Sources

Resources for Composition I and Composition II courses

Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Sources

Primary sources are original documents, objects, or media created during the time of the event being researched, or by an individual(s) who directly experienced an event, made a discovery, or created a new work of art. They are raw materials with a direct relationship to whatever is being studied.

Examples: photographs, speeches, diaries, editorials, letters, interviews, historic artifacts, works of art, musical scores, performances, literary works, survey research, legal documents, proceedings, patents, video or audio recordings of events being studied, etc.

Secondary sources are a step removed from the original source. They may comment or build upon original primary sources.

Examples: second-hand reports on events, research, or works created by someone else at a different time or place; criticisms; reviews; interpretations; citations; etc.

Tertiary sources typically compile and condense a range of primary and/or secondary sources into an easily-digestible format.

Examples: encyclopedias, almanacs, timelines, bibliographies, directories, fact books, etc. (Note: Many of these are also considered secondary sources.)

Across disciplines, contexts, and perspectives, the definition of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources differ.  Some scholars consider encyclopedias secondary sources, while others consider them tertiary sources. In today’s environment of digitized content, most would contend an online image of a primary document or transcript is sufficient, while others might argue the original physical copy is essential for primary research. Like many areas of study, distinctions are fuzzy and subject to interpretation. When in doubt, clarify your instructor’s expectations.

Using the 5 W's, SIFT & Lateral Reading

Is It Credible?

Who created the information? Affiliations, qualifications/credentials, reputation, contact info, etc. Who published it? Who paid for it? Does the creator or publisher have a bias or a point-of-view that might affect the information?

What is the evidence? Do the claims make sense? Can claims be fact-checked? Are stories, hearsay, or innuendo used as “proof?” Do the facts given logically lead to the conclusions made?

When was the article published? When was it revised or updated? Is timeliness important for the topic or not?

Where is it published – popular magazine, academic journal, blog, news, website, etc.? If it’s a website, what kind? Newspapers, magazines, and some journals web publish. Was the information edited, reviewed, or refereed? By whom? Where did the author get their information? Are they citing sources? If so, are those sources credible? 

Why was the information created? How is it meant to affect its audience? Why are they telling me this? To inform, teach, sell, entertain, persuade, or something else?

Who or what is missing that might change the interpretation or understanding of the information?

These  4 moves developed by Mike Caulfield will help you evaluate any web source.

STOP - Do you know this website or the source of the information, and what the reputation of both the claim and the site? If not, to to the next move.

INVESTIGATE the source - you want to know what you’re reading before you read it.

FIND better coverage - When you care about the claim the article is making, ignore the source itself, and look for trusted reporting or analysis on the claim.

TRACE claims, quotes, and media back to the original context - Much of what we find on the internet has been stripped of context. Trace the claim, quote, or media back to the source, so you can see it in it’s original context and get a sense if the version you saw was accurately presented.

Currency: How timely is the information?

Relevance: How closely does the information meet your needs?

Authority: Who or what is the source of the information?

Accuracy: How reliable, truthful, and correct is the content?

Purpose: Why does the information exist?

Source: Who is providing the information?

Motivation: Why are they telling me this?

Evidence. What evidence is provided for generalizations?

Logic: Do the facts logically compel the conclusions?

Left Out: What’s missing that might change our interpretation of the information?

Find out more about the SMELL Test.

Slideshow: Introduction to Information Needs and Source Types

The Pros and Cons of Different Source Types


  • Peer-reviewed: experts read and comment on quality of article prior to publication
  • Authority is clear
  • Articles written by the experts themselves, not by outside journalists
  • Almost always include citations
  • Often affiliated with professional organizations
  • Less influenced by ad revenue than magazines and newspapers


  • Not cheap or easy to find outside of academia
  • Publish articles less frequently than newspapers or websites = not suitable for breaking news
  • Written for experts in the field; can be too technical for a newcomer or casual reader

Intended Audience: Scholars, researchers, professionals, and university students in particular field

Watch for: "Predatory" or "pay to publish" online journals


  • Current information
  • Specialized articles related to a particular discipline or profession (including context and analysis)


  • Sources not always cited
  • Articles vary between short and easy to lengthy and highly specific

Intended Audience: Professional organizations or professionals/scholars with similar interests

What For / Consider: Has characteristics in common with both popular magazines and scholarly journals


  • More space than newspapers, magazines, or journals results in greater depth of information
  • Often include tables of contents and indexes for easy navigation and discovery
  • Often include footnotes, endnotes, and/or bibliographies
  • Most books undergo some sort of editorial process (usually writer - editor)


  • Take more time to read than other sources
  • Can take months or even years to publish
  • Many books do not undergo peer review
  • Rise in self-publishing means more unedited or poorly edited books reach publication

Intended Audience: Varies (general audience through scholars)

What For / Consider: Information may be dated due to the time it takes to publish a book.


  • More space than newspapers = longer articles, more depth
  • Published faster than books
  • Articles undergo an editorial process involving many people: reporter to editor to copy editor
  • Authority is clear for most articles


  • Less space than books
  • Publish articles less frequently than websites or newspapers; information can be outdated by press time
  • Reporters often aren’t experts and are writing for general audiences, not experts
  • Articles are not peer-reviewed
  • Rely on advertising and subscription revenue

Intended Audience: General audience or those with a specific, recreational interest (e.g. sports, fashion, science, etc.)

What For / Consider: Potential editorial bias


  • Published more frequently than magazines, journals, or books
  • Articles undergo an editorial process involving many people -- reporter to editor to copy editor
  • Authority is clear for most articles


  • Space limitations = shorter articles, less detail
  • Publish articles less frequently than websites; information can be outdated by press time
  • Reporters often aren’t experts and are writing for general audiences, not experts
  • Articles are not peer-reviewed
  • Rely on advertising and subscription revenue

Intended Audience: General audience

What For / Consider: Contains both fact-based reporting and editorial content (opinions). Opinions may be biased.


  • Easy to find using Google
  • Often have higher editorial and design standards than personal websites
  • Often managed by professional writers and designers
  • Government websites are designed to inform citizens


  • Commercial interests may come first
  • Articles are written for general audiences
  • Bylines often missing and works rarely cited

Intended Audience: General audience

What For / Consider: Governmental and educational websites have higher credibility than commercial websites


  • Articles easy to find using the site’s search field or Google
  • Articles about current events updated frequently
  • Best articles are edited by a crowd of interested and informed writers
  • Useful for background information


  • Editorial standards set by community; minimal oversight from Wikipedia staff
  • Articles on obscure topics can go untouched for months
  • Non-experts have just as much editorial control as experts
  • Worst articles are poorly written and poorly sourced
  • Instructors do not allow use as a source

Intended Audience: General audience

What For / Consider: Use the reference list to find other sources that can used


  • Easy to find through Google
  • Might be updated quickly and frequently
  • Direct access to person / author
  • Access to scholarly work in progress
  • Expansion of published work


  • No editorial standards or oversight = author can express opinions, biases, and incorrect information with few consequences
  • May not include information about the author, date of publication, or sources cited (if any)
  • Vary widely in quality and reliability

Intended Audience: General audience through scholars depending on the source

What For / Consider: High potential for bias. Usually informal.

Evaluate Sources with the CRAAP Test

Whether you’re writing a research paper, purchasing a product, or casting your vote, it is up to you to carefully evaluate information sources. One helpful evaluation tool is the CRAAP test, developed by Sarah Blakeslee at CSU Chico, and revised with her permission by NWACC Library. The letters in CRAAP stand for five evaluation criteria explored in the tabs above. See below for printer friendly version.

A word of caution: There is potential for error, distortion, and bias in any source. Respected experts disagree with their peers, new discoveries call once-established “facts” into question, and widely-accepted theories are later proven false. It can be both useful and necessary to engage with sources that do not pass the CRAAP test, especially if you critically evaluate the source and address its limitations. So keep an open mind, acknowledge uncertainty, practice skepticism, stay informed about new developments, and seek understanding of multiple perspectives related to the subjects and ideas that matter to you.

CURRENCY:  Consider the timeliness of the information you encounter, when it was published or produced.

  • If it’s an older source, is it outdated?  Or is it timeless? Find out whether the information has historical value.
  • Determine whether there have been important discoveries or developments related to the topic since the resource was created.
  • Check to see if and when the source itself was updated or revised. If you’re evaluating a website, test links to ensure they are still working.

RELEVANCE:  Think about how well the source fits your needs.

  • Does it answer your question? Does it provide information directly related to your topic?
  • Consider the uniqueness, depth and breadth of the information covered; does its treatment of the subject fit your needs?
  • If you’re writing a research paper, make sure you can use the resource to develop, emphasize, support or critique your ideas.
  • Pay attention to the source’s intended audience. In other words, make sure it is neither too advanced nor too simple to suit your purpose.

AUTHORITY:  Question the source of the information. In other words, who wrote, produced, funded or published it?

  • Determine whether the author is an individual, group, non-profit organization, commercial enterprise or government office.
  • Is there enough information about the author—such as her education, experience, or professional affiliations—to gauge her subject expertise?
  • Is the author/organization/publisher respected by other experts in the field?
  • Is the content dynamic? In other words, if someone else views the same source later, might the content be altered?
  • Consider issues of editorial control, including the review process involved before the resource is published or updates are posted.
  • For websites, think about whether the URL domain (such as .edu, .gov, .com, .org, etc.) indicates anything useful about the source.

ACCURACY: Assess how reliable the information is.

  • Is there sufficient evidence to back the author’s claims? Do the arguments or assertions stem from fact-based and logical analysis?
  • Can the information be verified by other reputable sources? Make sure the author cited his sources so you can evaluate their merit.
  • Was the source peer-reviewed or refereed; that is, have reputable experts in the field formally approved the content or research methods?
  • Look for examples of plagiarism, exaggeration, prejudice, or bias in the source. Does the author jump to conclusions too quickly?
  • Does the author acknowledge and fairly assess alternate perspectives and possibilities? Watch out for simplistic yes/no and either/or thinking.
  • Consider the quality of the writing itself; punctuation, spelling, and grammatical errors are red flags.

PURPOSE: Determine why the information is presented.

  • Was the source created to educate, inform, entertain, or persuade the audience?
  • Look for evidence of commercial, political, religious, or other motivations. (Hint: Check whether advertisements are clearly labeled.)
  • Consider how upfront the author is about her reasons for creating the source.

Evaluating Sources