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A source criticism is a published source evaluation (or information evaluation). An information source may be a document, a person, a speech, a fingerprint, a photo, an observation or anything used in order to obtain knowledge. In relation to a given purpose, a given information source may be more or less valid, reliable or relevant. Broadly, "source criticism" is the interdisciplinary study of how information sources are evaluated for given tasks.

The meaning of "source criticism"[]

Problems in translation: The Danish word “kildekritik” like the Norwegian word “kildekritikk” and the Swedish word “källkritik” derived from the German “Quellenkritik” and is closely associated with the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886). Hardtwig writes: "His [Ranke's] first work Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494–1514 (History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514) (1824) was a great success. It already showed some of the basic characteristics of his conception of Europe, and was of historiographical importance particularly because Ranke made an exemplary critical analysis of his sources in a separate volume, Zur Kritik neuerer Geschichtsschreiber (On the Critical Methods of Recent Historians). In this work he raised the method of textual criticism used in the late eighteenth century, particularly in classical philology to the standard method of scientific historical writing" (Hardtwig, 2001, p. 12739).

The larger part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would be dominated by the research-oriented conception of historical method of the so-called Historical School in Germany, led by historians as Leopold Ranke and Berthold Niebuhr. Their conception of history, long been regarded as the beginning of modern, `scientific' history, harked back to the `narrow' conception of historical method, limiting the methodical character of history to source criticism" (Lorenz, 2001).

Bible studies dominate the use of "source criticism" in America (cf. Hjørland, 2008). The term is thus relatively seldom used in English about historical methods and historiography (cf. Hjørland, 2008). This difference between European and American use of "source criticism" is somewhat strange considering the influence of Ranke on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. It has been suggested that differences in the use of the term are not accidental but due to different views of the historical method . In the German/Scandinavian tradition this subject is seen as important, whereas the Anglo-American tradition it is believed that historical methods must be specific and associated with the subject studied, for which reason there is no general field of "source criticism"[citation needed].

In the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere source evaluation (or information evaluation) is also studied interdisciplinarily from many different points of view, partly caused by the influence of the Internet. It is a growing field in, among other fields, library and information science. In this context source criticism is studied from a broader perspective than just, for example, history or Biblical studies.

Related concepts[]

A lot of terms are related to source criticism:

One distinction may be made between normative terms (such as source criticism) which prescribe methodological principles about the use of information sources and on the other hand descriptive terms like credibility, which tend to describe users' attitudes towards sources. These two aspects are, however, not always clearly separated.

The relative meanings of many of these terms as used in the literature have been explored by Savolainen (2007). Here are some quotes from this paper:

  • "Media credibility and cognitive authority denote closely related concepts that are difficult to define unambiguously. This is partly because they overlap with a number of closely related concepts like quality of information, believability of media, and reliability and trustworthiness of information " (Savolainen, 2007).
  • "Information scientists tend to favour the concept of cognitive authority, while communication researchers prefer concepts such as source-, message-, medium- and media credibility". (Savolainen, 2007).
  • "Overall, cognitive authority was characterized as having six facets; trustworthiness, reliability, scholarliness, credibility, 'officialness' and authoritativeness; of these, trustworthiness was perceived as the primary facet. " (Savolainen, 2007).
  • "In turn, it is characteristic of studies on media credibility that they focus on the channel through which the content is delivered [. . .]. Typically, these studies have explored the criteria by which diverse media such as newspapers, radio and television are perceived as believable sources of information. As early as in the 1950s, regular surveys of media credibility were conducted in the United States by asking respondents to indicate which medium they would believe if they got conflicting reports of the same news story from radio, television, magazines and newspapers". (Savolainen, 2007).
  • "An empirical survey conducted in the late 1990s in Germany revealed that the credibility of the Web was fairly high among the general public, although printed newspapers were rated ahead of it [reference omitted here]. Compared to the Web, newspapers were perceived as more clear, serious, thorough, detailed, critical, generally credible, balanced, competent and professional. With regard to these qualities, the differences between television and the Web were less significant. The Web was conceived of as more up-to-date than newspaper and television. On the one hand, newspapers were considered more biased than television and the Web. This is due to the fact that although most newspapers call themselves neutral they nevertheless do have a political bias. On the other hand, the greater bias of newspapers may be seen as positive since they articulate alternative positions in public discourse. Interestingly, when asked which medium they would prefer in the case of contradictory news on the same issue, the respondents would mainly place their trust in traditional media." (Savolainen, 2007).

Core principles[]

The following principles are cited from two Scandinavian textbooks on source criticism, Olden-Jørgensen (1998) and Thurén (1997) written by historians:

  • Human sources may be relics (e.g. a fingerprint) or narratives (e.g. a statement or a letter). Relics are more credible sources than narratives.
  • A given source may be forged or corrupted; strong indications of the originality of the source increases its reliability.
  • The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate description of what really happened
  • A primary source is more reliable than a secondary source, which in turn is more reliable than a tertiary source and so on.
  • If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased.
  • The tendency of a source is its motivation for providing some kind of bias. Tendencies should be minimized or supplemented with opposite motivations.
  • If it can be demonstrated that the witness (or source) has no direct interest in creating bias, the credibility of the message is increased.

We may add the following principles:

  • Knowledge of source criticism cannot substitute subject knowledge:

"Because each source teaches you more and more about your subject, you will be able to judge with ever-increasing precision the usefulness and value of any prospective source. In other words, the more you know about the subject, the more precisely you can identify what you must still find out". (Bazerman, 1995, p. 304).

  • The reliability of a given source is relative to the questions put to it.

"The empirical case study showed that most people find it difficult to assess questions of cognitive authority and media credibility in a general sense, for example, by comparing the overall credibility of newspapers and the Internet. Thus these assessments tend to be situationally sensitive. Newspapers, television and the Internet were frequently used as sources of orienting information, but their credibility varied depending on the actual topic at hand" (Savolainen, 2007).

Levels of generality[]

How general are principles of source criticism? Some principles are universal, other principles are specific for certain kinds of information sources. One may ask whether principles of source criticism are unique to the humanities?

There is today no consensus about the similarities and differences between natural science and humanities. Logical positivism claimed that all fields of knowledge were based on the same principles. Much of the criticism of logical positivism claimed that positivism is the basis of the sciences, whereas hermeneutics is the basis of the humanities. This was, for example, the position of Jürgen Habermas. A newer position, in accordance with, among others, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Thomas Kuhn understands both science and humanities as determined by researchers preunderstanding and paradigms. Hermeneutics is thus a universal theory. The difference is, however, that the sources of the humanities are themselves products of human interests and preunderstanding, whereas the sources of the natural sciences are not. Humanities are thus "double hermeneutic".

Natural scientists, however, are also using human products (such as scientific papers) which are products of preunderstanding (and, for example, academic fraud).

Contributing fields[]


Epistemological theories are the basic theories about how knowledge is obtained and thus the most general theories about how to evaluate information sources. Empiricism evaluate sources by considering the observations (or sensations) on which they are based. Sources without basis in experience are not seen as valid. Rationalism provides low priority to sources based on observations. In order to be meaningful observations must be grasped by clear ideas or concepts. It is the logical structure and the well definedness that is in focus in evaluating information sources from the rationalist point of view. Historicism evaluates information sources on the basis of their reflection of their sociocultural context and their theoretical development. Pragmatism evaluate sources on the basis of how their values and usefulness to accomplish certain outcomes. Pragmatism is skeptical about claimed neutral information sources.

The evaluation of knowledge or information sources cannot be more certain than is the construction of knowledge. If we accept the principle of fallibilism we also have to accept that source criticism can never 100% verify knowledge claims. As discussed in ther next section is source criticism intimately linked to scientific methods.

The presence of fallacies of argument in sources is another kind of philosophical criteria for evaluating sources. Fallacies are presented by Walton (1998). Among the fallacies are the ‘ad hominem fallacy’ (the use of personal attack to try to undermine or refute a person’s argument) and the ‘straw man fallacy’ (when one arguer misrepresents another’s position to make it appear less plausible than it really is, in order more easily to criticize or refute it.) See also fallacy.

Research methodology[]

Research methods are methods used to produce scholarly knowledge. The methods that are relevant for producing knowledge are also relevant for evaluating knowledge. An example of a book that turns methodology upside-down and uses it to evaluate produced knowledge is Katzer; Cook & Crouch (1998). See also Unobtrusive measures, Triangulation (social science).

Science studies[]

Studies of quality evaluation processes such as peer review, book reviews and of the normative criteria used in evaluation of scientific and scholarly research. Another field is the study of Scientific misconduct.

Harris (1979) provides a case study of how a famous experiment in psychology, Little Albert, has been distorted throughout the history of psychology, starting with the author (Watson) himself, general textbook authors, behavior therapists, and a prominent learning theorist. Harris proposes possible causes for these distortions and analyzes the Albert study as an example of myth making in the history of psychology. Studies of this kind may be regarded a special kind of reception history (how Watsons paper was received). It may also be regarded as a kind of critical history (opposed to ceremonial history of psychologt, cf. Harris, 1980). Such studies are important for source criticism in revealing the bias introduced by referring to classical studies.

See also Hjørland (2008): Empirical studies of the quality of science.

Textual criticism[]

Textual criticism (or broader: text philology) is a part of philology, which is not just devoted to the study of texts, but also to edit and produce "scientific editions", "scholarly editions", "standard editions", "historical editions", "reliable editions", "reliable texts", "text editions" or "critical editions", which are editions in which careful scholarship has been employed to ensure that the information contained within is as close to the author's/composer's original intentions as possible (and which allows the user to compare and judge changes in editions published under influence by the author/composer). The relation between these kinds of works and the concept "source criticism" is evident in Danish, where they may be termed "kildekritisk udgave" (directly translated "source critical edition").

In other words it is assumed that most editions of a given works is filled with noise and errors provided by publishers, why it is important to produce "scholarly editions". The work provided by text philology is an important part of source criticism in the humanities.

  • Palaeography
  • Textual criticism
  • Higher criticism
  • Historical editions (music)
  • Urtext edition

complete works and monumental editions


The study of eyewitness testimony is an important field of study used, among other purposes, to evaluate testimony in courts. The basics of eyewitness fallibility includes factors such as poor viewing conditions, brief exposure, and stress. More subtle factors, such as expectations, biases, and personal stereotypes can intervene to create erroneous reports. Loftus (1996) discuss all such factors and also shows that eyewitness memory is chronically inaccurate in surprising ways. An ingenious series of experiments reveals that memory can be radically altered by the way an eyewitness is questioned after the fact. New memories can be implanted and old ones unconsciously altered under interrogation.

Anderson (1978) and Anderson & Pichert (1977) reported an elegant experiment demonstrating how change in perspective affected people's ability to recall information that was unrecallable from another perspective.

In psychoanalysis the concept of defence mechanism is important and may be considered a contribution to the theory of source criticism because it explains psychological mechanisms, which distort the realiability of human information sources.

See also: Cognitive bias

Library and information science (LIS)[]

Study issues like relevance, quality indicators for documents, kinds of documents and their qualities (e.g. scholarly editions) and related issues are studied in LIS and are relevant for source criticism. The study of book reviews and their function in evaluating books should also be mentioned. The well-known comparison of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica (Giles, 2005) - although not done by information scientists - contained an interview with an information scientist (Michael Twidale) and should be obvious to include in LIS.

It could be argued that library and information education should provide teaching in source criticism at least at the same level as is taught in Upper Secondary School (see Gudmundsson, 2007).

In LIS has the checklist approach often been used (see: ). A criticism of this approach is given by Meola (2004): "Chucking the checklist".

Libraries sometimes provide advices on how their users may evaluate sources. The library of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, for example, provide this link about General Source Criticism and Topicality and Reliability of Printed Documents. Their advices to users are:

Source criticism of printed documents[]

When you have in your hand the document referred to, it is important to carry out a critical assessment of it as a source. Here are some tips.

  • Has the document been reviewed by an expert in the subject?
  • When was the document published? Are the research results still valid?
  • One measure of the significance of a document in the scientific community is how many times it has been cited. In the ISI Citation Databases you can see whether and how many times a certain document has been cited in major scientific journals.
  • Is the source reliable? Try to form an opinion on the source, i.e. the series or journal in which the document was published. In Journal Citation Reports you can form an opinion on the influence of a given major scientific journal based on the citation statistics.
  • Is the author an authority in the field? To a certain extent this can be judged by where he/she works.

Read more about topicality and reliability of printed documents

Source criticism of Internet documents[]

Scientific documents which you find via ordinary search engines are sometimes interspersed with advertising and personal reflections. Here it is crucial to maintain a critical attitude towards the source. Below follows some advice on source criticism, as well as a link to a comprehensive manual on source criticism of Internet documents (in Swedish only).

  • Is the document topical?
  • Which are the intended target groups?
  • Is the aim to inform, explain or persuade?
  • Has the document been reviewed by an expert in the field?
  • Is the author an authority in the field? To a certain extent this can be judged by where he/she works.

The Library of Congress has a "Teaching with Primary Sources" (TPS) program: TPS program


Source criticism is also about ethical behavior and culture. It is about a free press and an open society, including the protecting information sources from being persecuted (cf., Whistleblower.

Source criticism in specific domains[]

Source criticism of different media[]

See also:

  • Media manipulation


Photos are often manipulated during wars and for political purposes. One well known example is Joseph Stalin's manipulation of a photograph from May 5, 1920 on which Stalin's predecessor Lenin held a speech for Soviet troops that Leon Trotsky attended. Stalin had later Trotsky retouched out of this photograph. (cf. King, 1997). A recent example is reported by Healy (2008) about President Kim Jong Il, North Korea;

See also: Taylor (1991).

  • Photo manipulation

Source criticism of Internet sources[]

Much interest in evaluating Internet sources (such as Wikipedia) is reflected in the scholarly literature of Library and information science and in other fields. Mintz (2002) is an edited volume about this issue.

The term Internet epistemology is among newly suggested terms.

Examples of literature examining Internet sources include Chesney (2006), Fritch & Cromwell (2001), Leth & Thurén (2000) and Wilkinson, Bennett, & Oliver (1997).

Special topics such as the reliability of search enginees and Wikipedia have their own investigations.

See also:

  • E-mail fraud
  • Internet fraud
Criticism of search engines[]

Gerhart, Susan L. (2004). Do Web search engines suppress controversy?. First Monday 9(1).

Source criticism of Wikipedia[]

The scientific journal Nature compared Wikipedia with Encyclopedia Britannica. (See Giles, 2005) Encyclopedia Britannica replied (2006). The German magazine Stern compared Wikipedia with leading German Encyclopedias (Sterns test of Wikipedia, ).

Source criticism in archaeology and history[]

"In history, the term historical method was first introduced in a systematic way in the sixteenth century by Jean Bodin in his treatise of source criticism, Methodus ad facilem historiarium cognitionem (1566). Characteristically, Bodin's treatise intended to establish the ways by which reliable knowledge of the past could be established by checking sources against one another and by so assessing the reliability of the information conveyed by them, relating them to the interests involved." (Lorenz, 2001, p. 6870).

As written above, modern source criticism in history is closely associated with the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), who influenced historical methods on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, although in rather different ways. American history developed in a more empirist and antiphilosophical way (cf., Novick, 1988).

Two of the best-known rule books from History's childhood are Bernheim (1889) and Langlois & Seignobos (1898). These books provided a seven-step procedure (here quoted from Howell & Prevenier, 2001, p. 70-71):

  • 1 If the sources all agree about an event, historians can consider the event proved.
  • 2 However, majority does not rule; even if most sources relate events in one way, that version will not prevail unless it passes the test of critical textual analysis.
  • 3 The source whose account can be confirmed by reference to outside authorities in some of its parts can be trusted in its entirety if it is impossible similarly to confirm the entire text.
  • 4 When two sources disagree on a particular point, the historian will prefer the source with most "authority" - - i.e. the source created by the expert or by the eyewitness.
  • 5 Eyewittnesses are, in general, to be preferred, especially in circumstances where the ordinary observer could have accurately reported what transpired and, more specifically, when they deal with facts known by most contemporaries.
  • 6 If two independently created sources agree on a matter, the reliability of each is measureably enhanced.
  • 7 When two sources disagree (and there is no other means of evaluation), then historians take the source which seems to accord best with common sense.

Gudmundsson (2007, p. 38) writes: ”Source criticism should not totally dominate later courses. Other important perspectives, for example, philosophy of history/view of history, should not suffer by being neglected” (Translated by BH). This quote makes a distinction between source criticism on the one hand and historical philosophy on the other hand. However, different views of history and different specific theories about the field being studied may have important consequences for how sources are selected, interpreted and used. Feminist scholars may, for example, select sources made by women and may interprete sources from a feminist perspective. Epistemology should thus be considered a part of source criticism. It is in particular related to "tendency analysis".

In archaeology is radiocarbon dating an important technique to establish the age of information sources. Methods of this kind were the ideal when history established itself as both a scientific discipline and as a profession based on "scientific" principles in the last part of the 1880s (although radiocarbon dating is a more recent example of such methods). The empiricist movement in history brought along both "source criticism" as a research method and also in many countries large scale publishing efforts to make valid editions of "source materials" such as important letters and official documents (e.g. as facsimiles or transcriptions).

Historiography and Historical method include the study of the reliability of the sources used, in terms of, for example, authorship, credibility of the author, and the authenticity or corruption of the text.

Brundage (2007) and Howell & Prevenier (2001) provide introductions to the field.

  • Charter
  • Chronology
  • Codicology
  • Deed
  • Diplomatics
  • Heraldry
  • Numismatics
  • Papyrology
  • Sigillography

Source criticism in medicine[]

In medicine there is today a strong school of thought termed "evidence based medicine" (EBM). Here have very explicit criteria been developed on how to evaluate documents, including a hierarchy of evidence. EMB may thus be seen as a theory about source evaluation in medicine (a theory connected with empiricism).

Riegelman (2004) Studying a Study and Testing a Test: How to Read the Medical Evidence. Is a general text about critical reading in medicine.

Literature and references[]

  • Anderson, Richard C. (1978). Schema-directed processes in language compehension. IN: NATO International Conference on Cognitive Psychology and Instruction, 1977, Amsterdam: Cognitive Psychology and Instruction. Ed. by A. M. Lesgold, J. W. Pellegrino, S. D. Fokkema & R. Glaser. New York: Plenum Press (pp. 67–82).
  • Anderson, Richard C. & Pichert, J. W. (1977). Recall of previously unrecallable information following a shift of perspective. Urbana, Il: University of Illinois, Center for the Study of Reading, April. 1977. (Technical Report 41). Available in full-text from:
  • Bazerman, Charles (1995). The Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines. 5th ed. Houghton Mifflin.
  • Bee, Ronald E. (1983). Statistics and Source Criticism. Vetus Testamentum, Volume 33, Number 4, 483–488.
  • Beecher-Monas, Erica (2007). Evaluating scientific evidence : an interdisciplinary framework for intellectual due process. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bernheim, Ernst (1889). Lehrbuch der Historischen Methode und der Geschichtsphilosophie [Guidebook for Historical Method and the Philosophy of History]. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.
  • Brundage, Anthony (2007). Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing, 4th Ed. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc. (3rd edition, 1989 cited in text above).
  • Encyclopedia Britannica (2006). Fatally Flawed. Refuting the recent study on encyclopedic accuracy by the journal Nature. Nature's response March 23, 2006:
  • Fritch, J. W., & Cromwell, R. L. (2001). Evaluating Internet resources: Identity, affiliation, and cognitive authority in a networked world. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 52, 499–507.
  • Gerhart, Susan L. (2004). Do Web search engines suppress controversy?. First Monday 9(1).
  • Giles, J. (2005). Special Report: Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature, 438, 900–901. Available: Supplementary information:
  • Gudmundsson, David (2007). När kritiska elever är målet. Att undervisa i källkritik på gymnasiet. [When the Goal is Critical Students. Teaching Source Criticism in Upper Secondary School]. Malmö, Sweden: Malmö högskola. Full text
  • Hardtwig, W. (2001). Ranke, Leopold von (1795–1886). IN: Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Amsterdam: Elsevier. (12738–12741).
  • Harris, Ben (1979). Whatever Happened to Little Albert? American Psychologist, 34, 2, pp. 151–160. link to fulltext
  • Harris, Ben (1980). Ceremonial versus critical history of psychology. American Psychologist, 35(2), 218–219. (Note).
  • Healy, Jack (2008). Was the Dear Leader Photoshopped In? November 7, 2008, 2:57 pm [President Kim Jong Il, North Korea].
  • Hjørland, Birger (2008). Source criticism. In: Epistemological Lifeboat. Ed. by Birger Hjørland & Jeppe Nicolaisen.
  • Howell, Martha & Prevenier, Walter(2001). From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-8560-6.
  • Katzer, Jeffrey; Cook, Kenneth H. & Crouch, Wayne W. (1998). Evaluating Information: A Guide for Users of Social Science Research. 4 ed. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
  • King, D. (1997) The Commissar Vanishes: the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin's Russia. Metropolitan Books, New York.
  • Langlois, Charles-Victor & Seignobos, Charles (1898). Introduction aux études historiques [Introduction to the Study of History]. Paris: Librairie Hachette. Full text (French). Introduction to the Study of History (Full text in English) at
  • Leth, Göran & Thurén, Torsten (2000). Källkritik för internet . Stockholm: Styrelsen för Psykologiskt Försvar. (Hentet 2007-11-30).
  • Loftus, Elizabeth F. (1996). Eyewitness Testimony. Revised edition Cambridge, MA: Harward University Press. (Original edition:1979).
  • Lorenz, C. (2001). History: Theories and Methods. IN: Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Amsterdam: Elsevier. (Pp. 6869–6876).
  • Mathewson, Daniel B. (2002). A critical binarism: Source criticism and deconstructive criticism. Journal for the study of the Old Testament no98, pp. 3–28. Abstract: When classifying the array of interpretive methods currently available, biblical critics regularly distinguish between historical-critical methods, on the one hand, and literary critical methods, on the other. Frequently, methods on one side of the divide are said to be antagonistic to certain methods on the other. This article examines two such presumed antagonistic methods, source criticism and deconstructive criticism, and argues that they are not, in fact, antagonistic, but similar: both are postmodern movements, and both share an interpretive methodology (insofar as it is correct to speak of a deconstructive methodology). This argument is illustrated with a source-critical and a deconstructive reading of Exodus 14.
  • Mattus, Maria (2007). Finding Credible Information: A Challenge to Students Writing Academic Essays. Human IT 9(2), 1–28. Hentet 2007-09-04 fra:
  • Meola, M (2004). Chucking the checklist: A contextual approach to teaching undergraduates web-site evaluation. Portal: Libraries and the Academy , 4(3) , 331-344. Downloaded 2008-10-23 from:
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  • Thurén, Torsten. (1997). Källkritik. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
  • Walton, Douglas (1998). Fallacies. IN: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge
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See also[]