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Source Evaluation

Suggestions for finding credible research for your papers


SIFT stands for Stop, Investigate the Source, Find Better Coverage, Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context

"SIFT is an evaluation strategy developed by digital literacy expert Michael Caulfield (Washington State University Vancouver) to help you judge whether or online content can be trusted for credible and reliable information."

Credit: Wayne State University Library's SIFT libguide 

The SIFT method is a series of four moves that help you develop better judgement about information you find online. 

Using SIFT won't make you an expert on a topic and it won't necessarily help you resolve complex questions, but if you use the four SIFT steps before you engage with an online source, you will apply your attention and time more productively and accurately. In the end, it will help you avoid errors that a lot of people make online.

Credit: Sift: The Four Moves (CC By)


Stop! Just stop! Especially if the source evokes a strong emotion, surprises you, or creates a desire to share the information. 

STOP reminds you of two things.

First, when you first hit a page or post and start to read it — STOP. Ask yourself whether you know the website or source of the information, and what the reputation of both the claim and the website is. If you don’t have that information, use the other moves to get a sense of what you’re looking at. Don’t read it or share media until you know what it is.

Second, after you begin to use the other moves it can be easy to go down a rabbit hole, going off on tangents only distantly related to your original task. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed in your fact-checking efforts, STOP and take a second to remember your purpose. If you just want to repost, read an interesting story, or get a high-level explanation of a concept, it’s probably good enough to find out whether the publication is reputable. If you are doing deep research of your own, you may want to chase down individual claims in a newspaper article and independently verify them.

Please keep in mind that both sorts of investigations are equally useful. Quick and shallow investigations will form most of what we do on the web. We get quicker with the simple stuff in part so we can spend more time on the stuff that matters to us.

Investigate the Source

The key idea here is to know what you're reading before you read it. Does the source or sharing source have enough credibility on its own?

This doesn't mean you have to do a Pulitzer prize-winning investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you're reading a piece on economics by a Nobel prize-winning economist, you should know that before you read it. Conversely, if you're watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption that was put out by the dairy industry, you probably want to know that as well.

This doesn't mean the Nobel economist will always be right and that the dairy industry can't ever be trusted. But knowing the expertise and agenda of the source is crucial to your interpretation of what they say. Taking sixty seconds to figure out where it is from before reading will help you decide if it is worth your time, and if it is, help you to better understand its significance and trustworthiness.

Find Better Coverage

Finding better coverage may mean finding a better source, several better sources, or even finding the original source. If something is true, there are likely better sources.

Sometimes you don’t care about the particular article or video that reaches you. You care about the claim the article is making. You want to know if it is true or false. You want to know if it represents a consensus viewpoint, or if it is the subject of much disagreement.

In this case, your best strategy may be to ignore the source that reached you, and look for trusted reporting or analysis on the claim. If you get an article that says koalas have just been declared extinct from the Save the Koalas Foundation, your best bet might not be to investigate the source, but to go out and find the best source you can on this topic, or, just as importantly, to scan multiple sources and see what the expert consensus seems to be. In these cases we encourage you to “find other coverage” that better suits your needs — more trusted, more in-depth, or maybe just more varied. In lesson two we’ll show you some techniques to do this sort of thing very quickly.

Do you have to agree with the consensus once you find it? Absolutely not! But understanding the context and history of a claim will help you better evaluate it and form a starting point for future investigation.

Trace It Back

Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context. Much of what we find on the internet has been stripped of context. Maybe there’s a video of a fight between two people with Person A as the aggressor. But what happened before that? What was clipped out of the video and what stayed in? Maybe there’s a picture that seems real but the caption could be misleading. Maybe a claim is made about a new medical treatment based on a research finding — but you’re not certain if the cited research paper really said that.

In these cases we’ll have you 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.

Stop - Think About This

  • You bring expectations to your research, and it might be limiting your scope. 
  • If the information confirms or denies what you already believe, you may be having an emotional response to the material. Use this reaction as a reminder to stop and check yourself. 
  • Verifying the truth of a source and one with a different perspective (even if it upsets you) can strengthen your argument
  • Stopping can also be a reminder to stay and task and to stop going down research rabbit holes.

Investigate the Source - Think About This

  • Don't stay within the source or website.
  • What do other sources say about the reputation of the source or author?
  • What do author sources say is the purpose of this source?
  • What does the author's credentials or social media history tell you?



Find Better Coverage - Think About This

  • Has the topic been covered elsewhere?
  • Other sources may be more detailed, recent, or authoritative.
  • Library databases such as SmartSearch are good places to look when looking for better coverage of a topic.

Trace It Back - Think About This

  • Check the date! When was the information first created?
  • Click through and find out if there is false framing of the issue. In other words, read the whole article or post and look for relevant terms and supporting text.
  • You may need to go back to steps I (Investigate the Source) and F (Find Better Coverage).