2 Using credible sources

Learning Objectives

Course Objective for this section: Select, evaluate, and utilize discipline-specific information and literature to explore topics.

  • Differentiate between questions that can and cannot be answered using science.
  • Identify appropriate credible sources of information to research a topic.
  • Evaluate sources of information for their strengths and weaknesses.

Science is a very specific way of learning, or knowing, about the world. Humans have used the process of science to learn a huge amount about the way the natural world works. Science is responsible for amazing innovations in medicine, hygiene, and technology. There are however, areas of knowledge and human experience that the methods of science cannot be applied to. These include such things as answering purely moral questions, aesthetic questions, or what can be generally categorized as spiritual questions. Science has cannot investigate these areas because they are outside the realm of material phenomena, the phenomena of matter and energy, and cannot be observed and measured.

Questions that can be

answered using science

Questions that cannot be

answered using science

·       What is the optimum temperature for the growth of E. coli bacteria?

·       Do birds prefer bird feeders of a specific color?

·       What is the cause of this disease?

·       How effective is this drug in treating this disease?

·       How tall is Santa Claus?

·       Do angels exist?

·       Which is better: classical music or rock and roll?

·       What are the ethical implications of human cloning?

Since this is a biology class, we will be focusing on questions that can be answered scientifically. Remember that in the scientific process, observations lead to questions. A scientific question is one that can be answered by using the process of science (testing hypotheses, making observations about the natural world, designing experiments).

Sometimes you will directly make observations yourself about the natural world that lead you to ask scientific questions, other times you might hear or read something that leads you to ask a question. Regardless of how you make your initial observation, you will want to do research about your topic before you start setting up an experiment. When you’re learning about a topic, it’s important to use credible sources of information.

Types of Sources

Whether conducting research in the social sciences, humanities (especially history), arts, or natural sciences, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary source material is essential. Basically, this distinction illustrates the degree to which the author of a piece is removed from the actual event being described. This means whether the author is reporting information first hand (or is first to record these immediately following an event), or conveying the experiences and opinions of others—that is, second hand. In biology, the distinction would be between the person (or people) who conducted the research and someone who didn’t actually do the research, but is merely reporting on it.

Primary sources

These are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. In general, these original documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews, photographs, audio or video recordings, or original literary or theatrical works.

In science, a “primary source” or the “primary literature” refers to the original publication of a scientist’s new data, results, and conclusions. These articles are written for other experts in a specific scientific field.

You’ve probably done a writing assignment or other project during which you have participated in a peer review process. During this process, your project was critiqued and evaluated by people of similar competence to yourself (your peers). This gave you feedback on which to improve your work. Scientific articles typically go through a peer review process before they are published in an academic journal. In this case, the peers who are reviewing the article are other experts in the specific field about which the paper is written. This allows other scientists to critique experimental design, data, and conclusions before that information is published in an academic journal. Often, the scientists who did the experiment and who are trying to publish it are required to do additional work or edit their paper before it is published. The goal of the scientific peer review process is to ensure that published primary articles contain the best possible science.

Secondary sources

The function of a secondary source is to interpret the primary source. A secondary source can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as magazine articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.

Popular vs. Scholarly Sources

Broad range of topics, presented in shorter articles Specific, narrowly focused topics in lengthy, in-depth articles
Articles offer overview of subject matter; interpretation, rather than original research; sometimes contain feature articles and reports on current social issues and public opinion Articles often contain previously unpublished research and detail new developments in field
Intended to attract a general readership without any particular expertise or advanced education Intended for specialist readership of researchers, academics, students and professionals
Written by staff (not always attributed) or freelance writers using general, popular language Written by identified specialists and researchers in subject area, usually employing technical, subject-specific language and jargon
Edited and approved for publication in-house (not peer-reviewed) Critically evaluated by peers (fellow scholars)   in field for content, scholarly soundness, and academic value
Articles rarely contain references or footnotes and follow no specific format Well-researched, documented articles nearly always follow standard format:

abstract, introduction, literature review, methodology, results, conclusion, bibliography/references

Designed to attract eye of potential newsstand customers: usually filled with photographs or illustrations, printed on glossier paper Sober design: mostly text with some tables or graphs accompanying articles; usually little or no photography; negligible, if any, advertising; rarely printed on high-gloss paper
Each issue begins with page number ‘1’ Page numbers of issues within a volume (year) are usually consecutive (i.e., first page of succeeding issue is number following last page number of previous issue)
Presented to entertain, promote point of view, and/or sell products Intended to present researchers’ opinions and findings based on original research
Examples: Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Vogue Examples: Science, Nature, Journal of Microbial and Biochemical Technology

 In science, it is often extremely difficult to read and understand primary articles unless you are an expert in that specific scientific field. Secondary sources are typically easier to read and can give you the important information from a primary source, but only if the secondary source has interpreted the information correctly! It is always better to go to the primary source if possible because otherwise you are relying on someone else’s interpretation of the information. However, it is always better to use a source that you can read and understand rather than a source that you can’t. For this reason, it is very important to be able to identify credible secondary sources.

Evaluating Credibility

When you write a scientific paper (or any paper, really), you want to back up your statements with credible sources. You will need to identify credible sources to help you research scientific topics to help you develop interesting scientific questions. You will also need sources to help you form a well-educated hypothesis that is not just based on your guess about what will happen. A credible source is one that is trustworthy from which the information can be believed. Credible sources are written by people who are experts in the field (or at least are very knowledgeable) about the subject that they are commenting on.

We will be using a variation of the CRAAP test to help you determine whether or not sources that you find are credible or not. The CRAAP Test was created by Sarah Blakeslee, of the University of California at Chico’s Meriam Library. It is adapted below. When evaluating the credibility of sources using this method, if it’s CRAAP, it’s good!

You can use the table below to help you evaluate the credibility of your sources.

Credibility Table

Factors to consider Least reliable

(0 points)

Possibly reliable

(1 point)

Most reliable

(2 points)

Currency No date of publication or revision given Outdated for this particular topic Recently published or revised
Reliable source Unreliable website, no additional info available Possibly reliable Official government or organization, institutional sites, academic journals
Author No author is given / the author is not qualified to write about this topic Author is educated on topic or is staff of an organization assumed to be knowledgeable on this specific topic Specifically identified expert in this field with degrees / credentials in this subject
Accuracy No review process and information is not supported by evidence from cited sources The information may have been reviewed or edited by someone knowledgeable in the field. It mentions but does not directly cite other sources The information has been peer reviewed and is supported by evidence from cited credible sources
Purpose Obviously biased or trying to sell you something Sponsored source; may present unbalanced information Balanced, neutral, presents all sides of the issue fully

In general, do not use a source if it doesn’t pass the CRAAP test! For our purposes, do not use any sources that score less than 6 points using the credibility table.

Several examples are given below for sources that you might come across if you were researching the topic of vaccine safety.

Example 1:

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Aug 28, 2015. Vaccine Safety [Internet]. [cited May 12, 2016]. Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/index.html

  Score Discussion – why did you give that score?
Currency 2 Aug 28 2015 is recent and shows that this information is updated frequently.
Reliable source 2 I looked at the “about this organization” and learned that the CDC is a major government organization that works to protect Americans from health, safety, and security threats. They are a division of the US department of health and human services.
Author 1 A specific author was not identified, but the page states that the content is from the CDC, which suggests that it was written by a knowledgeable staff member.
Accuracy 1.5 No information is given about the review process, but it was probably edited by staff at the CDC. There is a list of citations and links to primary scientific articles supporting the information.
Purpose 2 The point of view does not appear to be biased because it seems to be presenting factual information. Admittedly, it only presents the pro-vaccine side of the argument. There are no ads on the page or other information trying to change the reader’s viewpoint.
Credibility Score 8.5/10 This seems like an excellent source to use for research. It’s readable and I could look at the primary articles if I wanted to check them out.

Example 2:

Stop Mandatory Vaccination. N.d.. The Dangers of Vaccines and Vaccinations [Internet]. [cited May 12, 2016]. Available from: http://www.stopmandatoryvaccination.com/vaccine-dangers/


  Score Discussion – why did you give that score?
Currency 1 The copyright is given as 2015, but there is no date for this specific article. It does reference something that took place in 2015, so it is likely written after that.
Reliable source 0 The “About” page states that the organization was started by Larry Cook using a GoFundMe platform
Author 0 Larry Cook has been devoted to the natural lifestyle for 25 years, but doesn’t appear to have any degrees or specific expertise on this topic. Other contributing authors include Landee Martin, who has a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology (which isn’t related to vaccine safety), and Brittney Kara, who is a mother who has studied holistic living for the last 17 years. None of the individuals specifically identified on the website appear to be experts in the field.
Accuracy 0.5 It seems unlikely that there is any review process. There are links to several sources, but none of them appear to be primary scientific articles. Several are links to interviews.
Purpose 0 This source is extremely biased. Even the name of the website is biased. There is a link to donate to the webpage. There are at least 10 ads for anti-vaccine books and websites.
Credibility Score 1.5/10 I would not want to use this source to research this topic. It’s extremely biased and doesn’t seem to offer much evidence for its assertions.


“Distinguish Between Primary and Secondary Sources” by University of California, Santa Cruz, University Library is licensed under CC BY 3.0

“Distinguish between Popular and Scholarly Journals” by University of California, Santa Cruz, University Library is licensed under CC BY 3.0


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Mt Hood Community College Biology 101 Copyright © 2016 by Lisa Bartee and Christine Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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