Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Research and Writing Basics: Evaluating Source Content

Remember RAT When Evaluating Source Content

When including source content in your essays, you want to use such great sources of information you can brag about them.  You want your readers to be blown away by the quality of your included experts.   You want your classmates to exclaim, “Wow!” and your professors to shout “A+ + + + +” when they read your paper and look at your exceptionally impressive list of sources.

However, there is so much information on the Internet, and so many misinformed experts, how can you tell the real deal from the duds?

First and foremost, don’t be a frightened little mouse when it comes to adding source evidence to your essays.  Be a big RAT:  Keep in mind the principles of relevance, authority, and timeliness, and you’ll be able to evaluate and incorporate source content with confidence.

R is for Relevance

Before adding any content to your essays, remember the “R” in RAT.  It stands for relevance.  Another way to say relevance is “applicability.”  Ask yourself if the information in the source is applicable to the specific argument or claim you make in your thesis and topic sentences.  Are the writer’s arguments and examples pertinent to your topic?  Can you use the writer’s ideas to back up your own ideas?  Can you use the writer’s ideas as a starting point from which to argue an opposing view?  If so, skim the source.  Carefully read the writer’s arguments or claims, and look for the main idea of each paragraph. Carefully read for key words.  If your source is relevant to your paper, read it through carefully and take notes.  If it is not, move on to another source.

A is for Authority

We’ve all seen some sort of courtroom television, and we’ve all noticed that before a lawyer calls an expert witness to the stand, they brag about them a little.   “I call my next witness, Mr. Brown, who has been the forensics expert in our state for thirty years and has won numerous awards for his scientific achievements in the study of forensic,” they might say.  You never hear them say, “I call my next witness, Vivien, who once wrote a blog post about her interest in forensics.”  That would probably get the lawyer kicked out of court.  The same principle applies to your papers.  If your source isn't a source you feel comfortable bragging about in the context of your paper, you should use the source.

The “A” in RAT stands for authority, and it is your responsibility to check up on your source writer’s authority.  Google the source writer’s name, and look to see if he or she has written other articles on the same topic.  Check your library’s subscription databases to look for records of peer-reviewed articles by the same author.  Check to see if the writer is published in trustworthy publications or questionable publications.   Check to see if the writer is quoted by others.  After checking up on the author, decide if you can brag about your source writer.  If you can, read the source carefully and take notes.  If you cannot, move on to another source.

T is for Timeliness

For some topics, the timeliness or publication date of an article is just as important as its content.  For example, if your essay is a discussion of current trends in hairstyling, you wouldn’t want to use a source from 1960 to back up your argument that one of today’s most popular hairstyles is the beehive.  Unless you were writing in an obviously satirical manner, that would be an irresponsible use of information.  Additionally, if you were writing about the features of the newest smartphone, you couldn't possibly use a source more than a few months old, because even after a few months, your information would be out of date!  Therefore, when evaluating source content, make sure you remember the “T” in RAT, which is timeliness.  If your source is timely, read it carefully and take notes.  If it is not, move on to another source.

Remember RAT

Each and every time you begin to look for source content for your essays, be sure you are remembering RAT as a way to help you evaluate your content before you choose to use it in an essay.  Check each of your sources for relevance, authority, and timeliness.

Want to read more about critical thinking and writing skills?  Try

Assessing Critical Thinking
Annotated Bibliography Assignment Guide for Students

Want to learn more about writing essays?   

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  1. Amy, the last time I wrote an essay the University of Georgia had oak clad card catalogs! With that in mind I have been wondering about how to cite information gleaned from the Internet. Your article is helpful!