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How to choose credible sources

How to choose credible sources

Author: Dan Reade
Description:
  1. Explain what can be considered credible, consistent sources by showing learners what to look for in sources (e.g. sufficient depth, relevance, authority etc.).

  2. Give examples of sources that might not be considered credible (e.g. Wikipedia).

This packet should help a learner seeking to understand how to conduct research for a paper and who is confused about how to choose credible sources. It will explain the difference between reliable and unreliable sources.

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Tutorial

Evaluating Print Sources

Just as a recipe is only as good as its ingredients, so an essay or paper is only as good as its sources. It is critical that a writer evaluate his or her potential sources to ensure that those sources are effective and accurate. The PDF below provides information on how to evaluate print sources. While focused on print sources, the information is generally applicable to electronic resources as well.

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Source: Creative Commons: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Evaluating Electronic Resources

For a variety of reasons, the evaluation of electronic resources, such as web pages or wiki sites, can be particularly difficult. The following slide show provides useful tips on how to determine whether a particular electronic resource is reliable.

Source: Creative Commons License: Jennifer Sharkey (http://my.ilstu.edu/~jsharke/interneteval/oldversion/index.html)

Worksheet for Evaluating Electronic Resources

You can use the worksheet below whenever you have to evaluate electronic resources

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Source: Creative Commons License: Jennifer Sharkey (http://my.ilstu.edu/~jsharke/interneteval/oldversion/worksheet3.pdf)

Resources To Avoid

Just as important as knowing what resources to use is being aware of what resources to avoid, or to at least think twice about before using. Inclusion on the list below does not automatically mean that the source in question is not reliable, but it does mean that you should be careful.

1. Wikipedia

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that is editable by anybody. It has rapidly become a go-to resource for just about any topic. While it may seem like a great resource to use for writing a paper, most scholars and teachers believe that Wikipedia is not an appropriate source for scholarly work (although some accept it as a useful starting point when beginning a research project). 

The reasons for this are two-fold:

  • Wikipedia can be edited by anyone: While Wikipedia's moderators do strive to make sure its information is accurate, the fact that it can be edited by anyone means that mistakes can and do slip in.
  • Encyclopedias in general should not be used as a source: In both high school and college, instructors generally do not want students using any encyclopedia as a source, whether it is Wikipedia or otherwise. Instead, instructors want students to dig into more sophisticated and focused sources, such as peer review journals, instead of relying on the broad, general, and limited information that encyclopedias tend to provide.

2. Resources without named authors

On the internet, anyone can publish, and anyone can publish without using their real name or identity. It is advisable to be wary of such sources. After all, if you cannot identify the author or authors of a source, you can't know whether they are really experts on the relevant subject.

3. Resources that don't cite their own sources

Citing sources is not just to give credit where credit is due. It also improves the credibility of your paper by showing that it is based on strong evidence. The reverse, of course, is also true. If a source doesn't provide its own sources, then it is difficult to determine how credible that source really is.

4. Resources that are old

While not all old resources are unusable, age should be a consideration. This is particularly true when writing papers or reports on the sciences. A medical text written in 1965, for example, is not going to provide up-to-date information. Obviously, though, there are numerous exceptions. If, for example, you are writing a paper on history, primary texts from the given time period would be not only appropriate but beneficial.

5. Resources that don't make sense

Sometimes called the "smell test", the basic idea here is that even if a source is on a good website and from someone who seems like an expert, if it still doesn't seem to make sense, it's good to be wary. Even the smartest people can have strange ideas, so with any source, it is important to use your critical thinking skills. If something seems like it doesn't make sense, be careful.

This list is not exhaustive, and it is worth repeating that simply because something does not meet these criteria does not automatically mean that it is not reliable. However, if you keep this list in mind, you can avoid some of the pitfalls of bad sources.

Source: Dan Reade

Conclusion

It is hard to underestimate the importance of credible sources to an article, report, essay, or paper. Credible sources are the foundation. They are the things upon which everything else as built.

As such, every writer needs to take time to ensure that the sources they use are credible, timely, and appropriate. By taking that time, a writer enables himself or herself to make his or her final product as effective as possible.

Source: Creative Commons Image: "Fixing Bolts on a Wind Turbine Foundation" by Walter Baxter