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Sources: Credible and Noncredible

Sources: Credible and Noncredible

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson explains what a source is and how to tell if a source is credible or not.

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? Today, we're going to be taking a close look at sources, including a discussion about the difference between relevant and non-relevant sources and credible and non-credible sources. We'll also discuss the peer review and editorial processes, and other sources that don't undergo them. And we'll look at some examples.

The first thing we should do is explain what a source is. For our purposes, a source is anything that provides information used as support in an essay or other piece of writing. And within this broad definition, there are many subcategories. As we've seen before, sources can be primary, secondary, or tertiary. So they could be the source material, document, object, or event that's being studied, as well as original research or analysis about the primary source, or a compilation or synthesis of multiple secondary sources, each taking the writer a little bit further from the original topic material, but providing different benefits because of it.

In academic writing, it's best to make use of only primary and secondary sources of information, and use tertiary sources primarily as introductory material or a way into the conversation that the secondary sources represent.

We should also be clear here that support doesn't just mean finding information that agrees with or proves writer's ideas. This is often a part of a source's supportive characteristics. But support can come from a source's other functions as well. Sources can be used to demonstrate the conversation around a topic, and to give the reader important facts or data relevant to the essay's thesis, or it can serve to distinguish the writer's ideas from those of others.

Let's talk about one of the most important distinctions a researcher and writer must be able to make-- the distinction between relevant and non-relevant sources. Relevant sources are those that are relevant or applicable to the essay's topic and thesis, and that are effective for the intended audience. Non-relevant sources, meanwhile, are either those that are off-topic, or those that are on the same topic as the essay, but that aren't sufficiently related to the thesis, or those that are ineffective for the intended audience.

As we're starting to see, all sources are not created equal. So a large part of the researcher's task involves making the distinction between credible and non-credible sources of information. When we say credible, we refer to sources that stand up to critical scrutiny, sources that an attentive, engaged reader who is aware of the rhetorical situation around the text, including the author's purpose, can still trust to be objective and accurate. Non-credible sources, obviously, are those that do not hold up to such scrutiny.

In seeking to determine a source's credibility, there many questions we should ask. These include, but aren't necessarily limited to, asking whether it is a primary source, and if so, if it's authentic.

If it's a secondary source, however, we need to ask whether or not the reasoning is defensible. We should also ask if the author had used any resources to validate the legitimacy of his or her claims, and, if so, if he or she adequately documented those sources. Has the author left out any important information, especially counter-perspectives, whether deliberately or accidentally? Has the author purposefully used any rhetorical appeals, including ethical use of pathos or appeals to emotion?

If the author has a clear bias or unstated assumptions, this isn't necessarily a problem. But we should ask if he or she has adjusted for them, made them clear, or otherwise acknowledged the presence of the bias. And if not, we need to decide if and to what degree this is a problem for us. And for all of these questions, we need to ask ourselves what the rhetorical situation around the source is, and how the various aspects of the situation-- including the author's purpose in writing it-- impact the source's credibility, and how we should interpret its claims and ideas.

In academic writing, there is a gold standard for secondary sources, a process that many go through in order to provide the readers with assurances that they will pass any of the aforementioned tests for credibility. This is the peer review process, which is the process in which experts on the subject anonymously review a writer's work, make recommendations regarding revisions and acceptance for publication. Peer-reviewed sources have undergone a rigorous editorial process before being published. And, as such, they can generally be assumed to be more credible and reliable than sources that have undergone any other editorial process.

Researchers should still read with a critical eye. But in general, sources such as newspapers and magazines, including some of their online formats, as well as academic journals and books from established publishing companies, are safe places to find objective and honest information and argumentation. These sources tend to be more credible than others, because the reputations of more people are at stake. And, therefore, it's more likely that the work has been adequately scrutinized before publication.

This is especially true for work published in academic journals and by scholarly publishers, as their peer review processes are more involved and take much longer than other editorial processes, such as those of daily newspapers and weekly or monthly magazines, which have stricter deadlines to adhere to. These publications do require rigorous editorial process prior to publication, which involves editorial feedback and fact-checking. But this is not as involved, then, as the anonymous and expert-based process of peer review.

But still, no matter the editorial processes a source has undergone, we should never assume it's completely credible, because, just as with any other process in which humans participate, errors and even corruption are always possible. And so retaining a critical stance is always a good idea.

This is even more true for sources that have not undergone such a rigorous editorial process. Many of the sources researchers are likely to encounter, especially online, lack a rigorous publication process, or any process, in some cases. And this often, though not always, makes them less credible.

For example, bloggers and other online writers, as well as self-published writers, can prove their credibility through solid logic and reasoning, use of legitimate sources, and accurate documentation of sources. These are all the things that peer reviewers and editors look for in the texts they review for publication. The difference is that for non-edited sources, the reader must act as reviewer, editor, and judge.

We should keep a particularly critical stance when reviewing online sources, including sources like Wikipedia, since even though that site encourages documentation, it's still a tertiary source, and one that can be manipulated without any accountable oversight. Still, sources that don't pass the test for credibility, or, as researchers are more likely to encounter, sources for which the credibility cannot be accurately judged, can still be useful, though they're best used as access points for closer, better, or more reliable sources, and as sources of basic, introductory information.

Many online sources, though, can be effective primary sources-- that is, sources to be analyzed or discussed directly. For example, a writer researching Americans' attitudes toward soccer might want to look at conversations on Twitter or other social media. And since the writer would be analyzing this material him or herself, the credibility of the source matter would be evaluated and discussed in that analysis.

The danger with non-credible sources comes primarily from a researcher taking the source's argument or information for granted, and basing his or her own information or argumentation on it, without allowing his or her readers to see the critical thought processes that should have happened first. As with many aspects of academic writing, it helps to always maintain a level of critical awareness.

Now, let's take a look at some sources, and see if we can't tell the difference between credible and non-credible sources. If we were researching the subject of gun control, chances are we'd run into both. So let's say we've been doing some research. And so far, we've found four sources-- a website, a magazine article, a blog, and a self-published ebook.

The first is a site we found through an online search engine, and it's the home site of a nonprofit group affiliated with the NRA, or National Rifle Association. Obviously, this political group would have a clear bias, but that doesn't necessarily make the source non-credible-- unless we were to find, for example, that they use nothing but unsupported emotional appeals claiming the government is coming to take away our guns, or something like that.

And for the second, it's an article published by a literary magazine-- The New Yorker. This is an edited, peer-reviewed source. And as such, it should be credible. But we'd still be best off reading it carefully. But if, after a close read, we don't see any evidence of unstated biases, fallacies, or unethical use of pathos or emotional appeals, chances are that this is, indeed, a credible and usable source.

But how about the blog? It's a personal blog devoted to the author's stance on various political issues like gun control, which is how we found it. This blog has an obvious bias. The writer's opinions are at the foreground of the text. But that's not necessarily a problem. But if, let's say, the blogger doesn't do much to support his claims that the NRA and other gun lobbyists are willing to keep letting school children die as long as they make a profit, and instead, he only makes these statements and assumes we agree, chances are we shouldn't use this source. Without some kind of external information to support his arguments, the blogger's opinions can't be much more than that-- one person's opinions. And since the blogger doesn't seem to be interested in really participating in the broader conversation-- rather, just stating his position over and over again-- that's a sign of a non-credible source.

Now, for the last source, we found an online self-published ebook. We should be a little careful. Since it wasn't published through a known publishing house, we have no way of knowing what editorial process the book went through, if any. But still, reading it with a critical eye should be enough to find out. And if we discover that the short nonfiction text about the history of rifles in the United States is full of outside sources of information, and relatively free from an obvious bias, it should be useful, and a credible source for us.

As you can see, any source a writer wants to use should first be evaluated, no matter what kind of source it is.

What did we learn today? We learned a lot, all about sources of information. We learned the difference between relevant and non-relevant sources, between credible and non-credible sources. And we learned about the peer review and editorial processes that many credible sources go through. We looked at other kinds of sources, and got to see some examples of how a researcher can actually go about deciding whether or not a source is credible.

I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know
Peer Review

A process where experts on a subject anonymously review a writer's work and make recommendations regarding revisions and acceptance for publication.


Anything that provides information used as support in an essay or other piece of writing.