SOURCE CRITICISM

The Critical Hunt!

We know it all too well: The hunt for the perfect source. The source that perfectly supports your argument or gives you the missing piece of your professional puzzle.

But how do you know if you can “rely” on your source? Does it hold water? Is it credible, and can it be used at all in a study context?

ASSESSMENT OF SOURCES

SENDER

WHO WROTE THE SOURCE? IS IT AN EXPERT?

It is always important to look at the sender/author, i.e. the person who wrote or produced the source.

Is it a credible, knowledgeable sender? Does the sender have special know-how within the subject area, or is it just some person with their own opinions? If so, you should be very careful about using the source in your assignment.

Be wary of commercial senders who want to sell a product or service. This could be a company that reviews its own product and happens to be extremely positive about its many qualities.

"FIND OUT WHO WROTE THE TEXT! WHAT IS THE AUTHOR'S BACKGROUND?"

"IS THE AUTHOR A RESEARCHER, JOURNALIST, STUDENT, BLOGGER, PROFESSIONAL, OR SOMETHING ELSE?"

"WHAT TYPE OF SOURCE IS IT? A TEXTBOOK, A NEWSPAPER, A JOURNAL, A PRODUCT CATALOGUE OR A COMMERCIAL WEBSITE?"

MOTIVE

WHAT IS THE MOTIVE BEHIND THE SOURCE? DOES IT SERVE A PROFESSIONAL PURPOSE?

When assessing a source, it is also essential to look at the motive behind the source.

What is it that the source really wants, what is its motive? To entertain you and make you laugh? To sell you a product? Or does it perhaps have a political motive or ideology?

Some sources may have different motives at once. A professional article may well use humour as a communication tool. But in general, sources which are meant to entertain, or which are political or commercial, do not belong in a study assignment.

"CONSIDER THE MOTIVE AND INTERESTS! WHY WAS THE SOURCE WRITTEN AND WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE?"

"DOES THE SOURCE INTEND TO ENTERTAIN YOU OR TO CONVEY, EXPLAIN, SELL, ARGUE OR DOCUMENT SOMETHING?"

"WHAT INTERESTS ARE AT STAKE? COMMERCIAL, POLITICAL, JOURNALISTIC, PROFESSIONAL?"

CURRENCY

ALWAYS CHECK IF YOUR SOURCE IS UP TO DATE

Always consider currency when assessing whether a source can be used in a study context.

Currency is about whether a source is up to date and valid.

Especially in certain subject areas, development is very fast, and even sources that are only one year old may seem hopelessly outdated. There are, of course, also areas in which the fundamental theories rarely change at all. The doctrine of Pythagoras, for instance, has remained unaffected for the past 2,500 years.

However, in most cases, it is essential to check if you are in possession of the latest and most current knowledge.

"ALWAYS CHECK WHEN THE SOURCE WAS WRITTEN! IS IT STILL CURRENT?"

"IS THERE MORE RECENT KNOWLEDGE? "

"HOW IMPORTANT IS THE NOVELTY VALUE TO YOUR ASSIGNMENT? "

RELEVANCE

IS THE SOURCE 100% SPOT ON? OR COULD YOU FIND SOMETHING BETTER?

It is important that your source is relevant to the subject under investigation. But what does it mean to be relevant?

Most importantly, the source must do more than simply touch on your subject area. It must support the substance of your assignment and the conclusion you arrive at. Therefore, you must make sure that you choose the source that best covers what you want to shed light on. This means that even a scientific article may not satisfy the criterion of relevance because it may not even be relevant to you and the subject matter of your assignment.

A source may also lack in relevance if its level of knowledge is not high enough. In particular if the source is meant to substantiate a main argument. 

"CONSIDER WHETHER THE SOURCE IS THE MOST SUITABLE FOR YOUR ASSIGNMENT! IS THE SOURCE RIGHT FOR YOUR PURPOSE?"

"IS THE SOURCE ON THE RIGHT LEVEL? "

"WHO WAS THE SOURCE WRITTEN FOR? STUDENTS, PROFESSIONALS, RESEARCHERS, THE GENERAL PUBLIC?"

ARGUMENTATION

DO THE ARGUMENTS MAKE SENSE? HAVE THEY BEEN SUBSTANTIATED?

If a source is to be used in a study context, it is essential that it should stand up to scrutiny. The source must be coherent, the argumentation must be clear, and the reader must never feel at a loss. There must be no reason to doubt the merits of the source, and the arguments in the source should be based on the knowledge of others. 

Quite specifically, the text must refer to other sources. The language must be grammatically correct. The individual sections must underpin each other, and there must be a common thread throughout the text.

You must always be wary of numerous misspellings, for instance, or arguments that seem unaccounted for and messy, or which appeal to your emotions rather than your sense. 

"CHECK IF THERE ARE REFERENCES TO OTHER SOURCES THAT SUBSTANTIATE THE ARGUMENTS"

"DO THE ARGUMENTS HOLD WATER, AND CAN YOU SEE THROUGH THEM?"

"IS THERE A COMMON THREAD AND CONSISTENCY THROUGHOUT THE TEXT?"

LEVELS OF KNOWLEDGE

HOW DO I KNOW IF MY SOURCE HAS AN ADEQUATE LEVEL?

When you work with sources in a study context, you distinguish, overall, between three levels.

THE SCIENTIFIC LEVEL

Here you will find scientific articles approved by experts in the subject area. The articles are investigative. They have long sections of method and theory, and they advance knowledge within a subject area. Although the articles may be difficult to read, they are, nevertheless, excellent for major assignments.

THE PROFESSIONAL LEVEL

Here you will find sources written by professionals for professionals or students. The sources are based on professional experience and theory/methods, and the emphasis is on explaining contexts and solutions. A good assignment always makes use of such sources, which include technical books and journals.

THE POPULAR LEVEL

Here you will find sources such as newspaper articles, blogs, product catalogues and various websites. The main focus is on dissemination, without necessarily explaining backgrounds or looking into contexts. Be careful about using popular level sources.

"USE KNOWLEDGE AT PROFESSIONAL OR SCIENTIFIC LEVEL IN YOUR STUDY ASSIGNMENTS"

"LEGISLATION AND STANDARDS CAN BE DIFFICULT TO PLACE IN THE KNOWLEDGE HIERARCHY, BUT IT IS ENTIRELY LEGITIMATE TO USE SUCH SOURCES IN A STUDY ASSIGNMENT"

Links

Here you can find tools and further inspiration. Please note that all the services are free of charge, but some require that you register as a user.

BOOKS

  • Critical thinking skills, developing effective analysis and argument  
  • Fake news, når virkeligheden taber  
  • Critical thinking, your guide to effective argument, successful analysis & independent study