Academic writing requires you to build your research upon the work of others—which means referring to scholarly sources. But failing to select the right sources can result in shoddy research and can hurt your credibility. To help you evaluate sources, we suggest using the C.R.A.P. test—that’s Currency, Reliability, Authority, and Purpose. Applying the C.R.A.P. test to your sources will show you which ones are appropriate to use in academic research. None of these filters are foolproof, but they’re a good starting point.
C is for Currency
When was the source published?
- Are you writing about the history of a subject/discipline/topic or about more recent developments? If you are writing about the history of an event or discipline (including any field of study, not just history), then you must take into account the difference between primary and secondary sources.
Primary sources were written at the time of the event in question, usually by someone involved in the event. Secondary sources are written later, often by historians, critics, or others who received the information secondhand. The Diary of Anne Frank is a good example of a primary source on World War II, while a scholarly article about the diary is a good example of a secondary source. In literary study, the primary source is the text written by the original author, while secondary sources are texts written about the work by critics.
- How recently was the source published? Depending on your discipline, it may be permissible to use a source published many years ago. In many fields, though, including those in the sciences, sources should be recent (unless you’re writing about the history of your field, as discussed above). Ask yourself if the information has changed since this source was published. If not, then it’s probably okay to use. When in doubt, ask your professor or advisor about the “expiration date” on sources related to your topic.
- If it’s an online source, is it current? Are all of its hyperlinks up to date? Out-of-date websites should be a red flag. Check to make sure the site has been updated recently (i.e., no broken links or outdated information).
R is for Reliability
How credible and applicable is the information?
- Is the source evaluated by experts in that particular field (also referred to as “peer-reviewed” or “refereed”)? You can limit your database searches to include only refereed articles. If you’re unsure, check for the journal title in the online version of Ulrich’s Periodical Directory (known as Ulrichsweb), which will help you determine if the article is refereed. Non-refereed sources (like newspapers) are usually not considered as credible as refereed sources.
- Where did the source originate? If it was published by a dependable organization, like the government or a university, you’re probably better off than if it was put out by an independent publisher. If it is online, check the domain name. Websites ending in .edu and .gov tend to be the most trustworthy. Sites ending in .org are often unbiased, but bear in mind that some organizations have a specific agenda. Sites ending in .com are usually trying to sell you something, and are likely to be the least reputable.
- Does the source provide references? If so, it’s probably more trustworthy. These references can also be helpful to you if you are looking for more sources to consult.
A is for Authority
What do you know about the author(s) of the source?
- Who is the author(s)? Works put out by corporations/organizations (like universities) are sometimes more authoritative than those put out by individuals. For instance, consider the authority of an article from a physician doing research with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) versus one from a doctor in private practice. However, it can go the other way: a report from an international oil company probably wouldn’t be considered unbiased if it were on the topic of fracking.
- Are the author(s)’ credentials readily accessible and appropriate? Look for authors who have expertise in their discipline—an advanced degree, awards, recommendations from others in the field, affiliation with a distinguished organization or university, and so on. For example, a professor with a Ph.D. and years of specialized experience would be a more authoritative source on an academic subject than a journalist or celebrity.
- What if there is no author? Sometimes, works put out by corporations or organizations do not list authors. If that is the case, evaluate the credibility of the organization itself. How many resources does it have at its disposal? How renowned is it? What would it gain or lose from the information presented?
- Who published the information? Is it a reputable publisher, or did the author pay to have the book printed? Does the publisher have a vested or conflicting interest in the work? For instance, drug studies published by pharmaceutical companies are not as credible as those published by independent researchers.
P is for Purpose
What is the source trying to accomplish?
- Is it unbiased or does it have an agenda (to persuade, entertain, etc.)? Be wary of publications and websites that contain advertisements—they’re likely to have an agenda designed to sell you something.
- Is the source seeking to persuade or to inform? If the author is seeking to persuade, the piece may be biased and therefore less credible than an informative source. If you can’t tell whether the author approves or disapproves of the topic, that’s a good sign that it’s a reputable academic source. However, even informative pieces can be biased. Look for sources that present both sides of the story and that support claims with solid evidence that is cited—not a vague statement that “researchers have found this” but a citation that points back to the research.
- Who is the intended audience? This will give you a clue to the author’s intent. Is the author attempting to sell something or entertain you? Or are they trying to understand, explore, educate, or inform? Watch out for satirical publications (i.e., The Onion), and be careful not to take their information at face value.
“Evaluating Sources: Use the C.R.A.P. Test!” Mercer University Libraries. Mercer University, n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
“CRAP Test: Evaluating Websites.” South Mountain Community College. South Mountain Community College Library, Updated 25 July 2014. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
“The CRAP Test.” Ohio University Libraries. Ohio University, Updated 23 March 2012. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.