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Judging Information Credibility

We talked about credibility of sources, but that was during the research process, including those early days when anything seemed as believable as anything else.

But a wonderful thing happens once you do serious research: you develop your own expertise. No, you’re not suddenly a scientist or a master chef, but you have learned quite a bit, such as how to spot a defunct idea that’s been around since the ’50s and when a source isn’t using the basic terms of the trade correctly.

The first step is to review your work and make a list of everything by title, including notes about where each source is from and what you think of it. (Pro tip: do this while you’re doing the research, and the list will be ready to go already.)

Now, go through your list and give each piece of research a tag indicating its level of credibility. Sound difficult? It can be. But there are steps to take.

Consider the Online Source

Government sources of information are subject to exhausting oversight, and as such they are usually quite reliable, especially when they’re not affiliated with a political party. For example, Cdc.gov is more reliable than Whitehouse.gov, no matter who’s president.

Websites referenced by the Library of Congress (e.g., loc.gov/rr/askalib/virtualref.html) or connected with peer-reviewed journals (e.g., scimagojr.com/journalrank.php) are highly credible, as are sites ending in .edu, .us, and .mil.

Print

It’s tempting to think that everything not online is good. Publishing on paper is such a commitment compared to throwing up a website. But there’s lousy stuff in print too.

Stay in your comfort zone and follow leads you find online Web articles with good information often refer to an original print source. This can be easy as looking at the bottom of a Wikipedia page and taking the references list to the library. (Another pro tip: if the online article doesn’t tell you its sources, it’s probably not a reliable article.)

Blogs

Blogs and other opinion-oriented sites can be good sources, but check who’s talking. The person claims to be a doctor, but where and of what?

And look over the site itself. Is this a news source or a promotional page? Is that study about minimum-wage workers funded by the Rand Corporation (a respected think tank) or Wal-Mart?

Members-Only Sites

With so much free information out there, give yourself an occasional reality check by paying what are usually quite reasonable access fees for articles and high-quality forum discussions by professionals and experts.

Remember, it takes money to gather some types of information. Recruiting people for focus groups and interviews usually requires some form of incentive, and running computer simulations can get very expensive. True experts expect to be compensated for their time.

Even better, subscription information sites live and die on the quality of their content. These organizations keep subscribers by giving them what they pay for. So while a free article might be a review of the three top computers by someone who likes computers, an article behind a firewall is much more likely to employ actual quality tests, corporate overviews, and long-term data tracking.