SIFT is an acronym developed by Mike Caulfield (2019) that describes four steps you can use to evaluate sources.
Here’s a short video series by Mike Caulfied that explores and demonstrates some of what we’ll cover in this section.
Before rushing in, stop and check these two things:
Recognize that you bring your own expectations to your research and that you might be limiting your scope based on what you think the research should show, not necessarily what the research actually shows. If a source confirms or denies what you believe already, you may have an emotional reaction. Use this reaction as a reminder to check yourself and make sure your emotions are not affecting the quality of your research or argument. Verifying the truth of a source you agree with or finding additional sources that present a different perspective (even though it may upset you) can strengthen your case.
Stop is also a reminder to stay on task. It is easy to get lost exploring interesting tangents while researching. If this happens, stop and remember your original goal. Think about your purpose and whether you need in depth research, information on current events, or other types of sources, and how those can meet your research needs.
Even if you like your source, do some more investigating. Ask yourself if you know what the source’s reputation is, both in general and regarding your area of research. A smart approach is to see what others have said about this publication or the author’s reputation using Wikipedia, Google, and other search tools. Here are some points to consider:
What do other sources say about the reputation of the resource? The creators of a resource will often portray themselves as an authority on a topic, whether or not their work is well-respected by outside experts. For this reason, their own “about” page is not necessarily objective and shouldn’t be your only source of information about them.
How does the source approach this kind of topic? Are they reporting on research or sharing strong opinions? Investigate how or if they support the points they are making. Check that any citations within their writing actually support what they’re saying and haven’t been taken out of context.
What is the main purpose of the resource? Purpose is the reason why something exists, such as to inform, convince, promote a particular viewpoint, entertain, or sell products. Think about what they’re trying to say or do, or what they’re trying to get you to say or do. Search beyond the resource to explore what others are saying about the website’s purpose. Similar to how you go beyond a source to learn about its reputation, don’t only stay within the website you’re exploring when you’re trying to figure out its purpose.
What are the author’s history and credentials? Knowing where and what they studied, where they work, and how long they’ve done research on a topic can help you evaluate whether they actually know what they’re talking about. It can also be valuable to know whether they have engaged in any ethical misconduct.
You might expect .edu websites to be more scholarly and objective since they are hosted by colleges and universities, but remember that personal home pages for students and staff hosted by campus servers also bear the .edu domain. Conversely, you may be aware that anyone can purchase a .com or .org domain; however, many scholarly journals are hosted on such websites. Domains can offer hints for where information came from, but the domain by itself does not give any assurance that the content is accurate, up-to-date, thorough, or unbiased.
How is the source or author funded? Check if any funding information or corporate ties to the project are listed, and consider whether those ties are likely to impact how the research is presented. This doesn’t invalidate their work, but you may need to consider possible bias or conflicts of interest.
These are only a few things to consider when investigating your source.
Before using a source, or sharing the information it contains, check to see how the topic has been covered elsewhere. Who else has written about it? Do other sources provide better information? Better sources might contain information that is more detailed, varied, authoritative, or recent.
Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original source. Before trusting or reusing information, make sure you understand the original context and have verified that it has been presented accurately. Some things to check include who first wrote about it and when, and where they got the information. At this point, you may need to circle back to steps I and F to evaluate any new information you’ve found.
Reputable fact-checking sites are good resources for clearing up viral stories, myths, urban legends and fake news on many different topics. Here are a few examples
Media Bias/Fact Check – Calling itself “the most comprehensive media bias resource,” this site is a good tool for checking up on various newspapers and news organizations. It identifies sites by how far they move (left or right) from a “least biased” centrist position. They also identify questionable sources, conspiracy-pseudoscience, and satire sites.
Politifact – This helpful site focuses on U.S. politics, using their own “Truth-o-meter” scale to rate how true or false public statements by politicians are
Snopes.com – Since 1994, this site has been fact-checking the web’s urban legends, news stories, hoaxes, political claims, and more