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Understanding Research

Learn how to search, identify, evaluate, and utilize academic research.

SIFT Creator, Mike Caulfield

Lateral Reading

What is lateral reading?

When we read laterally, we leave a website that we don’t know and open new tabs in order to see what other websites say about the original website.  

The goal of reading laterally is to learn more about a website’s perspective, authority, and potential motivations for providing the information.

A source might have a strong perspective and very little authority, or it might have a balanced perspective and very high authority. We can use that information to form an initial judgment about how reliable it is as a source, and whether it’s worth our time to take a deep dive into the content itself.

Evaluate Sources

The SIFT Method

Today's digital environment is full of information, but it isn't all relevant or accurate. Mike Caulfield from Washington State University has created four moves to help you evaluate sources. This method is called the SIFT method - stop, investigate, find, and trace.

SIFT: Stop, Investigate, Find, Trace


When you first arrive at a webpage, article, or news story, ask yourself whether you know the website or source of the information. What is the reputation of both the claim and the website?

  • If you don’t have that information, use lateral moves to get a sense of what you’re looking at. This means doing exploration, perhaps in another browser window, before you read the resource that you found.
  • Don’t read it or share media until you know what it is.
  • If you are doing scholarly research, you will probably want to chase down individual claims in an article and independently verify them.


The key idea here is to know what you're reading BEFORE you read it.

  • This doesn't mean you have to do an in-depth investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you're reading a piece on economics by a Nobel prize-winning economist, you should know that before you read it. Conversely, if you're watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption that was put out by the dairy industry, you probably want to know that as well. All of this will assist you in contextualizing the information that you're reading.
  • This doesn't mean the Nobel economist will always be right and that the dairy industry shouldn't be trusted, but knowing the expertise and agenda of the source is crucial to your interpretation of what they say. Taking sixty seconds to figure out where it is from before reading will help you decide if it is worth your time, and if it is, help you to better understand its significance and trustworthiness.


Sometimes you don’t care about the particular article or video that reaches you. You care about the claim the article is making and if it is true or false. You want to know if it represents a consensus viewpoint, or if it is the subject of disagreement and debate.

In this case, your best strategy may be to ignore the source that reached you, and look for trusted reporting or analysis on the claim.

If you get an article that says koalas have just been declared extinct from the Save the Koalas Foundation, then you'll want to

  • go out and find the best source you can on this topic, or
  • scan multiple sources and see what the expert consensus seems to be.

In these cases we encourage you to find other coverage that better suits your needs — more trusted, more in-depth, or maybe just more varied. Do you have to agree with the consensus once you find it? Absolutely not! But understanding the context and history of a claim will help you better evaluate it and form a starting point for future investigation.


Much of what we find on the internet has been stripped of context. Maybe there’s a picture that seems real but the caption could be misleading or maybe a claim is made about a new medical treatment based on a research finding — but you’re not certain if the cited research paper really said that.

In these cases, you have to trace the claim, quote, or media back to the source, so you can see it in its original context and get a sense if the version you saw was accurately presented.

Caulfield, M. (2019, October 19). SIFT (The Four Moves).