How to Spot a Credible Source

As an academic editor, part of your job may involve making sure your client has backed up their argument by citing credible sources. But how can you tell if a source is reliable or not?

In this post, we’ll take a look at what makes a source credible and what to do if you spot any unreliable sources in your client’s writing.

What Makes a Source Credible?

While the specific definition of credibility can differ between institutions and subjects, generally speaking a credible source is objective, backed up by evidence, and written by a reputable author or authors.

To check if a source your client has cited is credible, ask yourself:

  • Who is the author? Ideally, the author should be an authority in the subject area. This means they should possess a related qualification or be well known within their professional field. And they will usually have a history of publishing similar work. If you cannot find any relevant information about the author, view the source with skepticism.
  • Who is the intended audience? A credible source will usually be aimed at academics or specialists in a given field. Sources aimed at a general audience may be fine, especially if they are clearly cited, but there will usually be a more suitable scholarly or industry source available.
  • Where is it from? The best sources are usually from scholarly publications. Academic journals, for instance, are peer-reviewed, meaning the articles within have been approved by experts in the field. By comparison, an article on a blog or a Wikipedia page may be less rigorous. And articles on news sites or in newspapers may depend on how trustworthy the individual publication is.
  • When was it published? For certain topics, recent sources are usually better. In the sciences, for example, it is better to focus on the most recent research available since this is likely to be up to date.
  • Does it provide supporting documentation? A reliable source will provide evidence to back up its claims. This may consist of data in tables, graphs, or illustrations, especially for scientific research.
  • Does it cite its own sources? Reliable scholarly writing should cite its own sources. Does the article or book your client is using include a reference list, bibliography, or citations? If not, then it may not be a suitable source for academic writing.
  • Is it free from bias? A source may be biased if the author, publication, or other involved parties stand to benefit from the conclusions it draws. For example, a report on the impact of plastic waste on the environment conducted by a company that manufactures plastic may not be reliable because the company has a vested interest in the results.

These guidelines are context dependent. In an essay about Charles Dickens, for example, his works will be essential sources. And the reliability of Great Expectations as a source in this scenario is not undermined by it lacking citations or having been published in 1861.

However, when an author is citing a source not because they are discussing it directly but to back up a claim they are making (e.g., citing a scientific paper to provide background for an experiment), then reliability is pertinent. And if a source doesn’t fit the criteria outlined above, it may not be reliable enough to cite in an academic paper.

If this is the case, you’ll need to flag the issue with your client.

Web Sources

Online sources are now commonly used in academic writing, but they often lack clear publication dates and authors, and they may be subject to less rigorous review than print sources. This can make it hard to determine if your client has cited a credible web source.

While you won’t always be able to tell whether an online source is credible just by looking at its URL, the following domain extensions can give you some idea of how trustworthy a web source is:

  • .edu (academic institutions) – University and college websites are generally geared toward a scholarly audience. However, you should check that content is authoritative, up to date, and unbiased.
  • .org (charity or not-for-profit organizations) – Many of these sites will be informative, but they may be biased toward a certain agenda.
  • .gov/ (government-run sites or resources) – While government sites are usually reliable and authoritative, they may be influenced by political bias.
  • .com/ (commercial sites, usually owned by a company) – Commercial sites can provide useful information, but they are not usually scholarly sources, so they should be used carefully. Keep in mind that many will have an explicit marketing or promotional purpose.

Avoiding Plagiarism

While you may want to note issues with source reliability for academic clients, be careful about providing feedback on student work! Offering substantive advice on the content of work that is intended for assessment will often be considered academic plagiarism.

It is important, therefore, to check whether your client’s writing is subject to plagiarism guidelines. For student work, this may mean you can flag a source as unreliable. But you wouldn’t usually suggest an alternative source to use in its place, as this could step over the line into plagiarism.

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