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Directed Research Projects

Validity, Credibility, Reliability

The quality of your sources is a vital factor in the value of your research product. The terms validity, reliability, and credibility are often used interchangeably when discussing sources, and the core concept of each definition is that the information is trustworthy. 

Your work is only as good as the foundation on which it’s built, so make sure you purposefully evaluate your sources. There are a variety of acronyms and strategies to help you structure this evaluation. The ones included below are not the only methods, and some have been subject to criticism. That said, these strategies are still commonly recommended and provide easy acronyms for the important elements of information evaluation; you’ll notice many elements repeating across acronyms. For a longer list of options check out this shortcut roundup.  

5W’s from journalism (and history - origin debated)

  • Who created the source?
  • What is the purpose of the source?
  • When was the source created?
  • Where is the source material from?  
  • Why was the source created?  
  • How does this source compare to others? 

C.R.A.A.P. from Sarah Blakeslee

  • Currency: Timeliness of the information
  • Relevance: Importance of the information for your needs
  • Authority: Source of the information
  • Accuracy: Truthfulness and correctness of the information
  • Purpose: Reason the information exists  

RADAR from Jane Mandalios

  • Relevance - is this precisely relevant to your research issue?
  • Authority - how credible is the author/creator?
  • Date - the date may or may not affect this source’s validity, but what is it?
  • Appearance - what does it tell you about the intended audience?
  • Reason - the source was created? What biases does the reason reveal?

SIFT from Mike Caulfield

  • Stop - what do you know about this source already? Are you still on topic or heading down a rabbit hole?
  • Investigate the source - know what you’re reading; what is the context?
  • Find better coverage - are you excited by the claim being made? See if there are other sources with this claim that better meet your source needs.
  • Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context - is it accurately portrayed compared to the original context?

Keep in mind

  • No source exists in a vacuum. For every source you assess, consider the context in which it was created.  
  • Was the research funded and if so, how and by whom? Was the research commissioned? Is the source owned by an entity with vested interests in presenting a certain perspective?
  • No source is an island. There are few ideas or sources that are completely novel. Be leery if you can only locate one source making a certain claim; cross-check information in multiple sources. (Sometimes referred to as lateral evaluation, versus vertical).
  • There is no such thing as a bad source, only the inappropriate use of a source. Depending on your topic, you might very well need to cite unreliable or invalid sources as examples. 
  • At the end of the day, just make sure you’re asking and not assuming.

Look for

  • Experts in their fields.
  • Claims consistently reported across source types/origins.
  • Contextual transparency. 
  • Updated materials; always check to see if newer research updates or criticizes older material.

Finally, don’t take our word for it. Feel free to search for other sources on evaluating information (like this infographic, this research guide, or this set of instructions). Many libraries create content on this topic, for example Kansas State, and U. Minnesota.  

Legal Sources

Legal sources present some specific issues when it comes to validity. Take a look below for reminders by type of source. 

Primary:

  • Case. Check the subsequent history (how this case continued to progress through the courts - affirmed, reversed, etc.), and use a citator to check the treatment of the case (how later cases treated this case - overruled, distinguished, etc.).
  • Regulation. Are there proposed changes? Prior changes? What year is the rule you need or want to reference?
  • Statute. Is there pending or passed legislation that will change the text of the statute? Do you need a prior version or the current version?

Secondary:

  • Agency guidance. Has it been superseded by newer guidance? Which version are you citing?
  • Journals/Law reviews. Is the author a student, professor, practicing attorney? 
  • Legal news. Are you citing the online version or the print? Does the content or identifying information differ?
  • Practice guides/Treatises. Are there updates? Multiple editions? Changes in author?

Cite Checking Software

Bloomberg, Lexis, and Westlaw all offer brief-checking tools which allow you to upload a document (a brief) and receive an analysis, generally including: a review of the included cases and any updates or negative treatment; and suggestions for additional relevant cases.