When you grab the first sources you can find, whether for an academic essay or a report at work, your readers will know immediately that you are not invested enough in your own ideas to seek out other worthy voices. And if you are not invested, why should they be? [Image: Glen Noble | Unsplash]
DEFINITION TO REMEMBER:
• Credible = Trustworthy
RULES TO REMEMBER:
“Writing curriculum and faculty guides for a university psychology program connects me to the value of good academic writing. Shaping the minds and hearts of future counselors multiplies that value.” Dave Beach, Special Appointment Faculty – Social Sciences
1. Writers are now their own gatekeepers. Before the internet, reference librarians were our information gatekeepers. We trusted them to vet the worthy sources so we could confidently peruse library shelves and know that the items there were already pre-approved by a trained authority. Now that our access to information is boundless, the gatekeeping function falls to us. As a writer, the onus is on you to select sources that are trustworthy and reliable.The danger of choosing sources quickly and mindlessly is that you will lose your readers’ trust. If you are looking for a good restaurant for a special evening out, do you ask the first people you spot or do you seek out the advice of trusted friends or restaurant reviewers? When you grab the first sources you can find, whether for an academic essay or a report at work, your readers will know immediately that you are not invested enough in your own ideas to seek out other worthy voices. And if you are not invested, why should they be? Here are some factors to consider as you determine whether a source is credible:
◦ Consider the author. Is there an author listed? If so, who is it? Are you able to research the author further? If not, why not? Is it possible that no one is willing to stand behind the information, which is why you don’t see a name attached? The absence of an author is not a reason to automatically discard a source, but it is a reason to proceed cautiously.
◦ Check the date. Is the information current? Has the website been updated recently? Some topics demand information that has been updated within the past hour – a work report, for example. Other topics rely on information from years past – an essay exploring the social life of Lord Byron, for example. But all web information should be monitored regularly if it is a reliable source. If you don’t see a date, find a new source.
◦ Look at the domain address. Domains that are considered credible include .edu, which is reserved for colleges and universities, and .gov, which is used for government websites. Be wary of domains such as .com, .org, and .net, as they can be purchased and used by any individual for any purpose. The domain .org typically designates a non-profit organization, which means the source will likely have an agenda that you should be aware of. Sources do not have to be objective and non-biased in order for you to include them, but you do need to demonstrate to your readers an awareness of the motivations behind the sources you have selected.
◦ Watch for a bibliography. Reliable websites will include a list of sources for the information presented. Wikipedia and other open encyclopedias are not considered credible sources to include in an academic essay, for example, but they can be a helpful first stop when you learn to use the bibliography at the bottom of each entry to seek out new sources.
◦ Critique the writing. Do you see mechanical errors, inappropriate language, or odd tangents? A trustworthy source will have multiple checkpoints in place to ensure that the information presented is clear and error-free. If you see notable errors, find a new source.
◦ Consider the site design. Is the website professional, accessible, and easy to navigate? If not, why not? Credible sources will typically take great care to present their information in a professional manner. Don’t waste your time with sources that do not appear clean, clearly written, and industry-approved.
2. Peer-reviewed sources carry the most authority, particularly in the academic world. A peer-reviewed article has been vetted, critiqued, and likely molded by peers who have years of experience in the subject matter at hand. While an article written for a popular magazine may be reviewed by an editor and a copy editor prior to publication, a peer-reviewed article is typically reviewed by a team of experts over many months and sometimes years.Here is a hierarchy of sources you might include, with the most authoritative and credible listed at the top:
Peer-reviewed academic journals
Specialized trade books
Specialized encyclopedias and dictionaries
Popular magazines, books, and articles
General encyclopedias and dictionaries
If you aren’t sure whether a source has been peer-reviewed, contact a reference librarian at your local university or public library. They are trained in navigating the complexities of credibly source gathering and are typically happy to help you evaluate quality as you peruse the internet.
3. When in doubt, consider your purpose and your audience as you weigh the credibility and worthiness of various sources. Does the source fit your purpose? Would your audience find the source believable, persuasive, and interesting, or would they be suspicious? Outside sources should strengthen your argument, not weaken it, so be particular in what you choose to include.
• Trusting the internet. Rather than believing that what you find on the internet is true, what if you were to assume that any news feed or meme or authoritative source is actually the creation of a 14 year old in her pajamas in her bedroom with much too much time on her hands? How will you learn to use the gatekeeper checkpoints above to habitually vet all new information you encounter?
• Choosing too quickly. When we are in a hurry, it’s tempting to do a surface search and assume that the first information we find is the best. But that is rarely the case. Take the time to critique your sources and follow links until you are confident that what you have is the most reliable information you can find.
• Forgetting your audience. Remember that you are not writing for yourself. Always keep your audience at the forefront of your mind. If they are sitting across from you, listening to your justification of why a particular source is worth listening to, how will they respond? Will they be inspired and persuaded, or merely tolerant and half-bored? How will you ensure that the sources you select make your argument far more powerful than if you had made your claim on your own without bringing in outside voices to join you?
Find two credible sources for each of the topics listed below. How did you find each source? What makes it credible?
1. Making a career choice
Select a topic you have written about in the past or intend to write about in the near future. Make a cursory list of 10 possible sources for your topic. Using the language above, discuss the validity of each source and whether or not you would choose to include it in your piece.
Consider a writing assignment you will need to undertake in the near future. Compile an Annotated Working Bibliography of at least 10 potential sources that you intend to use. List each source in the formatting style appropriate to your assignment, and follow each listing with a one- to two-sentence annotation in which you discuss why the source is credible and how it relates to your topic.