Each time I post a blog I work hard to provide research articles and other sources that are reliable. With the increasing ease of finding and creating knowledge it’s getting harder and harder to ensure I’m sharing valid and reliable information.  In addition, if I am going to encourage each of you to do your own research and reading to better understand the topics I have presented I feel should provide some insight in how to ensure the information you find is accurate and reliable.

Information comes in many forms and is often shared quickly and repeatedly in today’s social media dominated click and share culture.  The increasing amount of information on social media and the Internet has made it more and more challenging to ensure its validity and reliability.  How often do you share clickbait material or something that has perpetuated a rumor you later find out is not true.  We have all done it at one time or another, whether we intended to or not. 

Defining key terms

Validity generally is the quality of being logically and factually sound or soundness according the dictionary. In the case of research valid findings are those that accurately represent the reality of the phenomenon you are attempting to measure.

Authority in this case refers to a person(s) or organization that has extensive or specialized knowledge about a given subject as well as other sources such as a book or research article written by an authority on a subject.

What makes a reliable source?

The two main types of sources are primary and secondary.  A primary source is where you are getting the information from a firsthand account of an event or topic from someone who had a direct connection to it. Examples include text of laws or other legal documents, newspaper reports from reporters who witnessed the events, speeches, diaries, letters, original research, raw data sets, photographs, and videos or audio that captures the event.

A secondary source are one degree removed from the primary source. They often will directly quote or paraphrase the primary source, but usually include a layer of interpretation or analysis.  Examples include books, interpretation of a data set, scholarly or other articles (newspaper, magazines), or documents that refer to the primary sources but are created by people not directly involved. (Source

A reliable source is one that is well reasoned and based on strong evidence.  When looking at scientific and/or medical research there are several evidence rating scales to help you determine the strength of the evidence.  Learning more about those ratings scales is beyond the scope of this blog, but if you are interested in looking at an example check out the Strength of Recommendation Taxonomy (SORT), a common scale used in athletic training research and recommendations.

What do you do in the case of other sources that are not peer-reviewed research articles? Things like newspaper or magazine articles, websites or blogs may not be able to be evaluated using the same techniques as peer reviewed research. You need to have a different process for evaluating the source you are considering. There is not a gold standard checklist, but there are many questions you can ask when evaluating these sources.

Evaluating a source

A quick Internet search of criteria for evaluating a source generates many lists, mostly from academic institutions (which I’ve deemed reliable in this case) provide key questions you should ask when assessing a sources reliability: (Source)

  1. Who are the authors and are they credible? Authors should be well respected and well known in a field of expertise.  Their crendentials should support their expertise and experience.
  2. Is it possible the source could be biased for some reason? If the information is provided by an author, organization or publisher that has an obvious perspective on a given topic this will likely slant the perspective of the information.  If an organization or publisher has a reputation for publishing innacurate or false information it is more likely that their information is less reliable.
  3. Is the content substantial and supported by evidence? If information is accurate, it can often be validated by multiple reliable sources. If available, additional graphs, illustrations and charts should be used to support the information presented and the author should cite that information in some fashion so the reader can review it for him or herself.
  4. How current is the information? Recommendations for what is defined as current varies, but given the rate at which new information and data is created sources should be as recent as possible, especially when looking at medical or scientific topics.  The recommendations could be different for other topics and is up to the reader to decide.
  5. For a website, what’s the domain name? It is important to pay attention to the end of the website domain name as it can be an indicator of the reliability of the information. Common endings are .gov, .mil, .edu, com, or .org. These domain names indicate who generated the information and can also indicate its reliability. If an About Us section is available on the site it can describe the purpose of the site, organization or company and whether the information may be biased. If the website name end in “lo” or the domain name ends in “” this indicates the website publishes false or satirical information.
  6. If the information is disseminated by an organization, such as a newspaper or non-profit, are they trustworthy? Take into account what you know about previous information they have published and its accuracy, whether or not there is potential for bias, and whether the authors of the information meet basic credibility criteria. 

Fact checking recommendations

When discussing the concept of fact checking it is most often associated with politics and determining whether our government representatives and news organizations are telling the truth. The popularity of these sites has grown in an attempt to combat the growing amount of fake news. Fact check sites not only focus on politics and politicians, but can address other topics too. When unsure, these can be a great starting point for checking the trustworthiness of your information.

While I will not recommend a fact checking site, a simple Internet search of various academic institutions' resources can provide you many options for fact checking sites that are known to be trustworthy and unbiased.  If you are interested in learning more how to better judge your information check out this open online course (MOOC) from the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University. They also have a digital resource center that could be helpful.

The filter bubble

Your favorite web browser and social media sites use algorithms that feed you information (and advertisements) based on things you’ve shown a preference for based on previous searches and clicks. This process creates a filter bubble where the information you receive continually reinforces your thoughts and ideas on a range of subjects and you receive less and less information on alternate theories, ideas, and opinions (confirmation bias).  To ensure you’re looking at the entire picture of an event or topic you should purposely “burst your filter bubble.”  The University of Maryland Global Campus recommends performing searches that look for information on all sides of an issue, use search databases that aren’t influenced by your previous web searches and investigate tech solutions. Check out this 10 Things you Can Do List for some recommendations on how to burst your filter bubble from Eli Pariser, who first coined the phrase.

Check out his TED talk on the topic of filter bubbles:

The next time you’re doing an Internet search on a specific topic be critical of the information you find but be open to a wide range of views at the same time. Be diligent about bursting your filter bubble and you can be confident that you’re not promoting inaccurate information or fake news.

DISCLAIMERThe content contained in this blog is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, athletic trainer, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.

Opening photo credit: Photo by João Silas on Unsplash