How to Spot a Credible Source
Learning how to spot a credible source is an important skill. 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 whether a source is reliable or not?
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at:
- What makes a source credible
- What the three types of sources are
- Why it’s important to use credible sources
- How to identify a credible source
- What to do if you spot unreliable sources in your client’s writing
What Is a Credible Source?
While the specific definition of credibility can differ between institutions and subjects, generally speaking, a credible source is presented objectively, backed up by evidence, and written by a reputable author or authors.
Types of Sources
Many types of sources exist, and they generally fall into three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary.
|Firsthand evidence or accounts involving original research, thoughts, or opinions
|– Newspapers and magazines
– Original research articles
– Letters or diary entries
– Audio clips such as speeches or interviews
– Censuses and statistics
– Novels and poems
|Secondhand information or accounts that analyze, describe, or evaluate primary sources
|– Journal reviews
– Blog posts
|Combination of primary and secondary sources that provide an overview, index, or summary of information
Why Is It Important to Use Credible Sources?
It’s important to use credible sources because authors should strive to provide the reader with the best information possible to support their ideas.
If someone is reading an article and finds an erroneous piece of information or data, they may not bother to continue reading. As a result, the whole piece of work – and the author – may be discredited.
The Role of the Editor
As an editor, your job is to revise a document to ensure clarity, concision, and a proper academic tone.
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 intended for assessment will often be considered academic plagiarism.
You should, therefore, check whether your client’s writing is subject to plagiarism guidelines. For student work, you can flag a source as unreliable. But you wouldn’t usually suggest an alternate source to use in its place because by doing so, you may be stepping over the line into plagiarism.
How to Tell Whether a Source Is Credible
To check whether a source your client has cited is credible, you should ask yourself a number of questions:
- Who is the author? Ideally, the author should be an authority on the subject area. That is, they should possess a related qualification or be known well within their professional field. And they will usually have a history of publishing similar work. If you can’t find relevant information about the author, view the source with skepticism.
- Who is the intended audience? Academics or specialists in a given field will usually be the intended audience of a credible source. Sources aimed at a general audience may be fine, especially if they’re clearly cited, but a more suitable scholarly or industry source will usually be available.
- Where is it from? The best sources are usually from scholarly publications. Academic journals, for instance, are peer-reviewed, meaning experts in the field have approved the articles within. By comparison, an article on a blog or a Wikipedia page may have been reviewed less rigorously. 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’s better to focus on the most recent research available because 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 documentation 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, it may not be a suitable source for academic writing.
- Is it free from bias? A source may be biased if the author, the publication, or other involved parties stand to benefit from the conclusions it draws. For example, if a company that manufactures plastic issues a report on the impact of plastic waste on the environment, the piece may not be reliable because the company has a vested interest in the results.
These guidelines are context-dependent, so what determines the credibility of a source can vary depending on the subject. Often, a credible source is just one that experts in that field would agree is valid. In an essay about Charles Dickens, for example, his works will be primary sources. And the reliability of Great Expectations as a source in this scenario is not undermined by the work’s lack of citations or its 1861 publication date.
However, when an author is citing a source not to discuss it directly but to back up a claim they’re 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. Should this situation arise, you’ll need to flag the issue with your client.
How to Know Whether an Online Source Is Credible
Online sources are now common 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 situation can make it hard to determine whether 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/.gov.uk/etc. (government-run sites or resources) – While government sites are usually reliable and authoritative, they may be influenced by political bias.
- .com/.co.uk/etc. (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.
Wikipedia is not the most reliable source. The problem is that anyone can add to or edit the information there, so the data could be flawed or even completely incorrect.
You can use Wikipedia to get an overview or simplification of a topic. Information on a given topic can also include links to primary and/or secondary sources, which you can find at the bottom of the page. It’s possible to use Wikipedia, with caution, as a tertiary source.
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