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How to Search for Sources and Manage Them

How to develop a search strategy

Fact-Checking with SIFT

Looking glass
Through the looking glass, CC BY-NC-SA Reiterlied

The SIFT method (the Four Moves) was developed by information literacy researcher Mike Caulfield following a study showing that CRAAP-like methods are insufficient to reliably evaluate sources. It consists of four actions to take with any new information, with the goal of creating good habits whenever using or sharing information.

Stop. Pause and ask yourself if you know the information source and its reputation. Also take time to consider whether this information requires a quick and shallow investigation (in most daily cases) or thorough fact-checking (when using a source for research or decision-making, for example).

Investigate the source. Take a minute to identify where this information comes from and to consider the creator's expertise and agenda.
Is this source worth your time? Look at what others have said about them to help you.

Find better coverage. Sometimes the source matters less to you than the claim. In that case, look for the best sources on this topic, compare information across sources, and determine whether there appears to be a consensus (which can itself be debatable).

Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context. Online information is stripped of its original context. What happened before the start of a video? Is the caption of a picture misleading? Perhaps an article is based on a press release which does not reflect the real contents of a research paper? Trace the information back to the original source to check whether it is accurately represented.

SIFT in Practice

When applying SIFT, you may have to practice the following actions to save time:

Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.

Go upstream to the source: Check the origin of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.

Read laterally:  Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.

Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

Lateral Reading and Wikipedia

When searching for confirmation of consensus through lateral reading, you might often come across Wikipedia articles. Since Wikipedia does not publish original research, it does not make sense to use it as a reference. It can however help you identify the current scientific consensus on an issue, as well as evaluate or find additional sources and references.

Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but rules and community processes ensure its validity and help build a consensus based on cited sources. In a sense, it is a unique form of non-academic peer-reviewed content.

You should still check whether the article you are consulting is considered reliable by Wikipedia itself:

  • Are there any maintenance template warnings such as “stub”, “non-neutral”, “missing references”? Or to the contrary, does it have a “good article” badge?
  • Are the sources for facts and affirmations properly referenced?
  • Check the discussion page for any debate on the current contents of the article.
  • Check the article edition history for possible vandalism or hostile editing.