Non-academic sources are very valuable for scholarly research, especially in the humanities and social sciences. The challenge in using them lies in the fact that they haven’t gone through a more-or-less fixed process of quality checking before they become available, as is the case with scholarly sources (i.e. academic publications).
Also, the places where you find these sources, the public library but even more so the free web (Google and other search engines) lack the quality filters that are available to you in academic databases and academic search engines. This means the only quality checker is YOU!
There are four important criteria by which to evaluate sources:
This criteria is especially important when it comes to online sources. Since anyone can publish anything on the Internet, it’s important to find out if the author has any authority on the topic he/she is writing on, or to make certain pronouncements.
The goal of this part of the checklist is checking the source for correctness, whereby you look into matters such as verifiable facts, how current the source is and whether or not it paints a complete picture.
3. Reasonableness (objectivity)
A credible source strives for objectivity and also pays attention to counter-arguments. What is the purpose of the source? Is there bias?
Much like any type of source, you need to check what is supporting the arguments presented in a non-academic article. Look first to see if any sources are cited either in the text, perhaps as a hyperlink or footnote, or listed at the bottom of the article. However, when sources are mentioned, you should evaluate these just as you did with the source you are interested in. If most of the mentioned sources are unsound, this is a strong indication that the article is low quality, and you might not want to use it. Moreover, if there are no sources listed for the information in the article, and if the author is not an authority on the subject, you probably should skip using that source as a reference.
As an example, here is an article from the online publishing platform called Medium discussing digital advertising on social media platforms. If you look through the article, hyperlinks a peppered throughout it many leading to investigative journalism articles, for each graph a source is a listed most citing industry data, and if we look up the author, it is Professor of Marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business, Scott Galloway. In this case, the article passes the check.
There are very few non-academic sources that score 100 percent on all criteria. This is not a problem. In some cases you might actually be looking for sources that score low on a certain criterium. If, for example, you research public opinion, sources that score low on reasonableness (objectivity) are just what you want. But even then it is important to keep the criteria in the back of your mind.
Tip: There are many useful criteria checklists similar to the above CARS, such as CRAAP (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose) and ASPECT (Authority, Sources, Purpose, Evenness, Coverage and Timeliness).