Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re searching online for sources for your research paper, and halfway through reading, you ask yourself, “Who writes this crap?”
You, your neighbor, or just about anyone can publish online. In the world of the Internet, you could become Allie S. Everson, PhD. and write an article titled, “The Evolution of String Theory: Are Scientists Stringing Us Along?”
Sounds credible, right? All you need to do is write a really good summary of what you can dig up on Wikipedia and bam–you have an article!
The problems with this are pretty obvious. First, you’re likely plagiarizing another source to write your article. And second, you’re claiming you hold a PhD.
Another problem is that some unsuspecting student might be citing your bogus article in a research paper!
Okay, I’m pretty sure you’re not out there posing as Dr. Everson. I just wrote this to make a point. You could easily fall victim to bogus “experts,” too, if you don’t choose your sources carefully.
So, how exactly do you decide if a source is crap? Simple: Apply the CRAAP Test!
(Yes, really. CRAAP Test. That’s really what it’s called.)
This test will help you determine whether or not your sources are crap, so keep reading to learn how to use it.
What Is the CRAAP Test?
The CRAAP Test is a series of questions to help you decide whether a source is credible.
You’ll ask questions about CRAAP: Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose.
It’s like evaluating all the elements that make up your source through a microscope. You need to look at all parts of the source to determine if it’s appropriate for your research essay.
Applying the CRAAP Test to Your Essay Sources
First of all, you don’t want to use every source you find, and you can’t assume that all sources are created equal.
When you research, you’ll encounter many sources that are, in fact, crap (especially if you’re doing all of your research online using only websites).
CRAAP stands for “currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose.”
To determine what’s useful and what’s not, test your sources by asking the following questions under each of these topics.
In this case, currency has nothing to do with money. Here, currency refers to the timeliness of the source. In other words, when was it written?
Unless you’re using the source for something like a historical overview, you’ll want to find recent sources.
If you’re using a website, it might not be that easy to find the date the source was originally written, but you should be able to find the date the information was last updated. Check the bottom of the webpage for a date when the information was created or last updated
Think the date of a source can’t really mean that much? Think again.
Let’s say you find a source online (written five years ago) about a breakthrough cancer treatment. A five-year-old source may not be that old for some topics, but in the world of science and technology, five years might as well be a lifetime.
That breakthrough cancer treatment of five years ago might have already been deemed unsafe, and several new breakthrough treatments might now be in place.
This may sound a bit too obvious, but you’ll need to ask yourself if the source is relevant to your research.
Just because you’re writing a paper about minimum-wage laws and the title of the article includes the words “minimum-wage laws,” you can’t automatically assume the content of the article meets your needs.
The article might explain the reasons why minimum-wage laws were created, but if you’ve already located a source about the history of the law to use as background information, this source may not provide any new or useful information for your paper.
You’ll also need to think about the intended audience, and whether or not the source is written at an appropriate level.
If the source is written for middle school students, and you’re using the source in a college research essay, you can pretty much assume your professor won’t be too happy seeing the source on your Works Cited or Reference page.
Don’t assume that scholarly resources will always be written for the appropriate audience, either.
If you’re writing a paper about mental illness, and you’ve located a research paper written by doctors for doctors, you might find yourself a bit lost. If the paper is written for other doctors, the authors have likely used terms and explanations that you simply won’t understand.
This is a good article to skip, too. If you can’t make sense of the information, you certainly can’t use it as a source in your paper.
Who is the author? If you’re researching opinions about the newest iPhone, reading blogs and forums written by just about anyone might be useful.
On the other hand, if you’re researching the topic of global warming for your essay, reading sources written by just about anyone is definitely not recommended.
Look for the author’s credentials. Does the author have a degree in the field? Does he or she work in the field? Has the author written other articles or books about the subject?
Just because someone has written about a subject or published a book about a subject doesn’t mean that he or she is credible. A self-proclaimed “healer” won’t be considered as credible as an MD (doctor of medicine) if you’re researching new medical treatments.
If you’re evaluating the authority of a web source, look at the URL. What does this say about the source? A .com site is more likely to simply want to sell you something. A .gov or .edu will likely present more in-depth and balanced information. A .org may contain detailed information, but it may have an agenda and may be biased.
You’re looking for clear, accurate, unbiased, and well-documented sources. Generally, this means avoiding .com sites. (News websites, such as CNN.com, NYTimes.com, or NPR.com are generally exceptions to this rule.)
Does this source hit the mark? Is the information correct?
Before you decide whether you want to use the source in your essay, check to see if you can verify the information.
If one source states 75% of college students don’t bother to purchase the required textbooks for their courses, and another source states roughly 10% of students don’t purchase textbooks, look to see how the statistics were gathered, and try to verify which source is correct. (Keep in mind, you may find a third source that presents yet another statistic, so you may need to continue to research to verify accuracy.)
Next, read carefully to make sure the author uses ample evidence to support claims.
If a source claims 50% of all teens with valid driver’s licenses receive at least one speeding ticket before they reach the age of 20, does the author support this claim with verifiable, statistical evidence, or does the author just make up random statistics to support his argument?
The final step in checking accuracy is to examine the author’s arguments. Is the information balanced, or is it biased? A biased argument contains only one side of the argument, likely with little evidence to support claims.
A Note About Appearances: If you’re reading an anonymous source with multiple spelling and typographical errors, it’s pretty easy to figure out that the source might not be credible and the information might not be accurate. But sometimes non-credible websites appear to be professional. Don’t be fooled by a slick-looking website.
Apply the CRAAP Test to all of your potential sources to make sure the information is, in fact, accurate.
No, don’t spend your time now asking what’s the purpose of writing a research paper. (That’s a conversation for another time.)
Now is the time to ask yourself why the piece of writing was published. Is it written to inform readers? Does it use fair, unbiased, language? Or, is the purpose to persuade? Does the author use manipulative language to convince readers?
Again, this is especially important when evaluating websites. Does the website exist solely to sell you something? Is it trying to promote a political or religious agenda?
If the source is biased and attempts to promote a specific agenda, it’s probably not your best bet for a research essay (unless, of course, your paper intends to evaluate the article and examine the bias and propaganda in the source).
Enough of this CRAAP
Use crappy sources, and you’ll end up with a crappy paper (and most likely a crappy grade).
Instead, apply the CRAAP Test to ensure you’re using credible sources for your essay.
You might want to use this worksheet as a quick way to help evaluate your sources when using the CRAAP Test.
For another light-hearted look at the CRAAP Test, watch “The CRAAP Test Song”.