Sources of Academic Knowledge
Finding the right sources to support your academic work is more important than the work itself.
This may seem like a bold statement. You may be asking yourself, “isn’t the work that I do the most important thing when I am completing an assignment?” The truth is, if your work is based on unreliable or incorrect information, it will have little to no value. Understanding which sources are high quality or can be trusted will be central to your development as a university student. The world is full of information, and it may seem as if it is all at your fingertips. However, if you do not know how to determine which sources to use, you will struggle.
While the quality of sources will fall generally on to a spectrum ranging from “low” to “high”, you should undoubtedly focus on the high end. Broadly speaking, the highest quality sources are scholarly and peer-reviewed publications. These sources contain information from experts which has been checked by other experts and as such is the best. However, even using one of these some critical judgement is required and will be addressed below. Other high-quality sources can be theses and dissertations, conference proceedings, and some texts. At the lower end of the spectrum are popular sources such a newspapers, websites, and blogs. Note that newspapers present a unique case where the reliability of the periodical can vary widely. There is a vast difference between the New York Times and the New York Post.
No matter which source, you must judge whether it is appropriate for use. Though seemingly counter-intuitive, facts change over time. Until the 1800’s many of the world’s most esteemed ornithologists believed that sparrows hibernated underwater, migration being too ridiculous to be believed (it’s true). Does this mean that you must be the arbiter on whether a fact is correct? No, it doesn’t, but you do need to make some critical choices.
Fortunately, there are tools to help.
One such tool is the CRAAP test (pun intended). This method for evaluating sources was created by Sarah Blakeslee and her team at California State University1. This is not the first or only test for determining the credibility of sources, but it may be the easiest to remember. In this acronym “C” is currency, “R” is relevance, “A” is authority, then next “A” is accuracy, and “P” is purpose.
Currency: The timeliness of information
- When was the information published or posted? Revised or updated?
- Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well?
Relevance: The importane of the information for your needs.
- Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
- Who is the intended audience? / an appropriate level?
Authority: The source of the information
- Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
- What are the author’s credential or organizational affliations?
- Is the author qualified to write on the topic? / contact information?
Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness and correctness of the content.
- Where does the information come from? / supported by evidence?
- Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
- Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion?
Purpose: The reason the information exists
- What is the purpose of the information? Is it to inform, teach,sell, entertain or pursuade?
- Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
- Are there political, religious, institutional or personal biases?
Using CRAAP (in brief)
Currency: The first step is this process is checking the currency of the information. Is this the most up-to-date information? HAs it been revised or updated? Does it cite other up-to-date sources? Using our example above about the sparrows, an article on this topic would immediately fail this portion of the review as it would be significantly out of date.
Relevance:T When judging the relevance, you need to look at the link between the topic being written about and its sources. You should also determine the intended audience, is the level of this information appropriate for what you would like to use it for?
Authority:T The author and publisher of a source matter. Are they qualified to be a source on this topic? Also, while no work is without bias, are the biases identified and addressed? Know this information will help you decide if the source can be trusted and is worthy of citation.
Accuracy:T Also critical to determining if a source is trustworthy is accuracy. Is appropriate evidence presented? Does this evidence have its own sources with verifiable citations? Going back to bias how is this addressed? Is the argument balanced? Are the conclusions logical?
Purpose:T Why was this source created? Is it part of a larger body of work? What is it trying to do? (teach, entertain, sell you something?). Knowing the author’s intentions can help you decide if the source it appropriate for use.
Once you become more experienced at using CRAAP, it need not be as formal and deliberate a process as demonstrated above. It can be “running in the background” and going through your subconscious mind, as you conduct your research.
Always remember that you are responsible for selecting appropriate, high-quality sources for your work, and developing these critical skills are an essential part of the university experience.
1Blakeslee, Sarah (2004) “The CRAAP Test,” LOEX Quarterly: Vol. 31: No. 3, Article 4. Available at: https://commons.emich.edu/loexquarterly/vol31/iss3/4
Copyright Ⓒ Juvenis Maxime 2023
Author: Kenneth Knox