The 5 Ws — who, what, where, when, and why — are good questions to ask when you encounter any information, be it digital or analog or some combination. This is important whether you're worried about slipping on snake oil marketing, concerned about identifying true from false, and even from evaluating which source on a topic is most trustworthy.
Use the tabs at the top of this box to learn more about the 5 Ws.
We decided to frame this discussion of the 5 Ws after reading this piece:
On evaluating information using the 5 Ws: Radom, R. (2017, January 04). Evaluating Information Sources Using the 5 Ws. OER Commons. Retrieved July 02, 2020, from https://www.oercommons.org/authoring/19364-evaluating-information-sources-using-the-5-ws
Other credibility tests include the CRAAP Test and SIFTing.
Take a look at the byline information or the affiliation information of the author. You can Google them to see whether they have a personal website. Many faculty, for example, have websites on their institutional homepage or an academic social media presence on Academia.edu or ResearchGate. Some faculty also have Google Scholar.
Credentials often come in some combination of experiential and credentialed. Having the credentials of experience means that someone's lived experience has prepared them to be an authority on a topic. Being an academic expert means having an official degree related to the topic. In either case, someone may have an official job title or social position relevant to the area. Sometimes people with experiential understanding will also have a degree on it. It's important to value multiple ways of knowing when making your assessment.
Let's say that you're reading an opinion piece in the New York Times about immigration. You find yourself agreeing with the author, but when you get down to the byline, you notice that the author is not someone who has firsthand experience, nor is the author someone who researches immigration — it's someone with a Ph.D. in climate science with no evidence that they research climate-related displacement. You realize that you likely agree with the author because you've both read similar work on immigration. The only difference between you is that this person has a degree from a prestigious institution and has an easier time having their opinions circulated in the national news. Where might you look for a firsthand account from someone with experience ... either due to being an immigrant or working with immigrants?
Let's say you're reading a news story about whether plastic bag bans actually help the plastic crisis. If the news article is quoting people who work for recycling companies, paper bag companies, and plastics manufacturing companies, they are missing a big part of the story — waste experts, for example (paper breaks down faster than plastic), and other stakeholders.
This also goes for data. Take a look at where statistics and data are coming from, if possible. If knowing that the statistics are correct is very important to you, research the organization to determine what their expertise and gaps are.
You will encounter many types of documents in your daily life: newspaper and magazine articles; scientific research studies; fiction and nonfiction books; and so on. There are also celebrity gossip magazines, clickbait articles, and more.
Some pieces, like the transcript of a lecture on a senior academic's career trajectory, a think piece about a woman's experience in rehab after a brain injury and how she relates her experience to concepts in disability rights, or an opinion piece from The Guardian, The New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, draw primarily from opinion and the deep well of personal experience, supplemented by data and statistics to back up the creator's perspective. The senior academic will likely do a mixture of facts and opinions, highlighting key research in their field and their own personal relationship to it.
Others, like an analysis of neutrino data presented to confirm or deny a hypothesis, a study of the migratory patterns of an endangered bird species, an analysis of population-wide health outcomes for brain injuries, or the presentation of a climate model, are fact-based. Each of these pieces may have methodological questions that the authors will admit to — the sampling of the endangered bird species, the instrument error for the neutrino research, or how different climate variables are treated in the climate model. There is also a margin of error when crafting surveys or determining how to assess quality of life, and it takes effort to ensure that the qualitative instrument is not biased. A methodological uncertainty is not the same as something being opinion-based — it is, at least in theory, quantifiable, and it can be changed if more data is taken or if the model is altered.
Formality is used more in older works than in more recent ones, but one major register shift remains: modern scientific research usually avoids the first-person singular pronoun (I/me/my), preferring passive voice or (sparingly) the first-person plural (we/us/our). Beyond that, you can examine the tone of voice used in a government publication for adults versus young children; medical fact sheets for teens versus older adults; and so on. We use different language when writing informally (think on social media) from how we write a blog post (think Tumblr or Wordpress) to how we write for public dissemination. We may also change the language we use when we're with family and friends versus people beyond our inner circle.
These are called register shifts — we have a variety of language choices that we make in daily life to adapt to different social situations. What register is the piece using, and is it the most useful one for the intended audience? What does the register used in the piece assume about who the reader is?
We discussed the types of documents we can encounter under the "what", but the "where" takes us even farther — into the differences between different types of content.
In popular media, this can mean something like distinguishing between tabloids and reputable news content. It can also mean doing an assessment of where this publication falls on the political spectrum within a country.
In scholarly sources, we can take a look at the journal it was published in. What is the journal's scope? Is it on any red-flag lists, as fake journals are a persistent problem in publishing? Is it in a prestigious closed-access journal? Did the researchers decide to publish it open access so anyone could read it?
We can learn a lot from the About page of an organization. Another thing we can do is to use lateral reading and ask Google or Bing to give us more information about the publication.
The resources we're including on this tab can help you.
Google's algorithms cannot tell the difference between real and fake journals. They both look like real ones to algorithms, so pay attention!
Many of these scam journals add the names of prominent scientists to their editorial boards. These scholars may not even know that they are listed! Look up the editors and see if they list their editorship of the journal on their CVs. When in doubt, ask a professor, librarian, or trusted colleague!
Cabell's predatory reports has a database of information on journals. If you type in a journal's name, you will see information about how many non-transparent practices Cabell's reports has flagged. Pay attention to the ones that seem to have fake peer review practices.
Check out our guide to scholarly journals at guides.library.yale.edu/articlepublishing
You may have heard that any research older than five years is not worthwhile to read. The real answer is much more complicated.
In medical fields, timeliness and currency are very important because our knowledge of how the human body works changes rapidly, and doctors want to make sure that they're using the most up-to-date clinical practices — especially since it takes so long for medical research to become clinical practice.
In other fields, though, people read old science. Paleontologists frequently consult writings from the 19th century about fossils when doing their work today. Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity was published in 1905 and revised in 1912, and while many things have changed since then, the physics of the early 20th century is still very important foundational work to consult. Any field that makes unique observations — such as astronomy, wildlife biology, and so on — that need to be dated to a specific time and location may be citing older works.
News pieces about science can age very quickly. They're usually about publicizing that a research team tried a new technique. If possible, figure out what team that was and go to the paper that they wrote. See if it has been cited since or if the team has produced new, related work.
For popular culture and the news, timeliness can vary. If you need something about an event that happened a few days ago, breaking news and Wikipedia are your best bet. Make sure you look at the Wikipedia talk page for whatever you're consulting, though — every page has one, and you will see the conversations that go on behind the scenes to produce the pages that everyone consults. Here's more about what a Wikipedia talk page is. If you're looking for calm analysis, you'll need to wait a while — it can take weeks, months, or years, depending on what that topic is.
Scientific research is usually published because authors need to share findings — and not just because they want to. Sometimes, authors will write more papers because they are evaluated on how often and where they publish, so they will break research apart into more papers.
A newspaper or magazine will often write on a topic — when it's not an exclusive exposé — because it's the news or a current topic, and it seems like the most straightforward thing to do. Sometimes, newspapers or magazines will offer sponsored pieces. The same goes for Influencer content, even when the Influencer is an academic.
The author could have been writing this to inform, to persuade, to sell a product, or for another reason. Using the contextual information you have — and the other parts of the 5 Ws analysis — assign a category to the author's writing. For example, a piece about how a specific brand of laboratory glass changed a lab for the better might be a heartfelt persuasion piece, but it could also be sponsored by the glass company.
Context matters for how a person is quoted. Pay attention to how the quotation fits into the overall piece, and if the person is being quoted in a persuasive piece, note how and why.
Wikipedia and Google are great for finding fast facts about authors and publications. Some questions to consider while looking for biographical information:
Looking at media bias: https://www.adfontesmedia.com/static-mbc/
Filtering news by bias: https://www.improvethenews.org/
AllSides (for viewing headlines on major news topics side-by-side): https://www.allsides.com/
Climate Feedback website (for fact-checking climate science news): https://climatefeedback.org
WayBack Machine (for looking up old versions of a website): https://archive.org/