Use the following 6 journalistic question words to guide you through evaluating whether information sources are authoritative (to be trusted as being accurate and reliable) for your needs.
Important: A source is never only “good” or “bad” but can be more or less appropriate depending on the research you are doing.
Example: Your friend runs out of the basement yelling “it’s flooding!” and is an authoritative source on if the basement is flooding. However, your friend has never read Jane Eyre and gives you his opinion about the book, is not an authoritative source on Jane Eyre.
WHO : Author
Explanation: Authority exists in many forms such as subject expertise (a professor), societal position (a member of Congress), or special experience (a participant at an event). What are the author’s qualifications? What credentials contribute to the author’s authority? Many disciplines have acknowledged authorities (e.g., well-known scholars) that are considered “standard” in the field. But even these “standards” can be and have been challenged.
Example: A blog posting by an eye-witness to a riot would be an authoritative primary source on the subject. That same blog posting would not be an authoritative secondary source.
WHAT : Type of Document & Overall Tone
Explanation: Authoritative content may be any type of media (books, articles, videos, social media, etc.) and come in many different tones (conversational, academic, technical). Authoritative sources are appropriate to the research being done.
Example: Research on Malcolm X would be enhanced by an informal conversation with one of his friends, not by the study of technical reports. Research on structural engineering, however, would be enhanced by the study of technical reports.
WHERE : Source of Information (Where it Appears)
Explanation: Authoritative content may be in formal (such as a scholarly article) or informal (a blog posting) sources. Many disciplines have acknowledged authorities (publications like scholarly journals or books) that are considered “standard” in the field. Similarly, there are publishing houses, academic presses, or even certain restricted website domains (e.g., .gov or .edu) that have reputations for providing high-quality information. But even these “standards” can be and have been challenged. It is important to evaluate not only the work but also where you found it.
Example: Authoritative research on fracking produced by the federal government but then re-purposed by a fracking company website, may be authoritative, but should be carefully analyzed in the context of the site on which it was found.
WHEN : Publication Date & Occurrence that Precipitated Publication
Explanation: Authoritative information may be recently published or very old. Subject and context are all important when asking “when.”
Example: Referring to a book published in 1900 for research on the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) could be very authoritative. Researching stem cell transplantation using a journal article published in 2010 could be out-of-date.
WHY : Author’s Purpose for Writing the Document
Explanation: Bias can exist in any source (newspapers, scholarly articles, blog posts, etc.). When evaluating a source, asking why they wrote the document (and if the work was funded or sponsored, by whom) can help you decide if it is authoritative. Having a bias doesn’t mean a source shouldn’t be used, rather any information should be examined critically and verified with another source.
Example: Research explaining the benefits of smoking funded by a tobacco company very likely has a bias but could still contain authoritative information if verified by other sources.
HOW : Author’s Method of Gathering & Analyzing Data
Explanation: There are many different ways to gather & analyze information. When gathering data an author may have done their own original study, compiled various outside sources, interviewed people, or be writing from personal experience. Any method can be authoritative, depending on the information need. When analyzing data, the author's use of proprietary, inter-operable (the extent to which systems can exchange, interpret, and share data), or open data formats signals how and if an author intends the data to be used and shared.
Example: Using interviews to support the effectiveness of a new drug is not a sound methodology; however, using interviews to give context to a riot is.
Method adapted from Rachel Radom and Rachel W. Gammons, “Teaching Information Evaluation with the Five Ws: An Elementary Method, an Instructional Scaffold, and the Effect on Student Recall and Application,” Reference & User Services Quarterly 53, 4 (2014): 334-47.