Editorial services by Laura E. Goodin

Reliable Sources, Wannabes, and Imposters
by Laura E. Goodin (©2009)

The Internet has changed research forever. Ideas and resources that were nearly impossible to locate — let alone actually get your hands on — are at your fingertips. Unfortunately, not all of the material you find is worth your time, and some of it is even destructively wrong.

There are a lot of signs that suggest a web site will be less than useful to you:
  • The content has been written or edited by people who are definitely not credible experts, or there is no way to tell whether they're credible.

  • The content is plagiarised, or attribution can't be traced back to the original source.

  • The content is badly written, and/or suffers from dreadful spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

  • The content is outdated.

  • The site is so extremely biased that the reliability of its information is doubtful.

It all boils down to whether the site is credible and respected.

Credible Experts
How can you tell if the site content comes from credible experts? First, check and see whether the information you want on the site has a specific author's name attached to it. If it does, search on that name to find other sites that contain the author's work. Is the author affiliated with a well-known and well-regarded institution, such as a university? (Note: not all places calling themselves "university" are genuine universities!)

Has the author published books through commercial or academic publishers? (Self-publishing does not necessarily mean an author is unreliable, but it does mean there's no way to be sure.) Are they making presentations or speeches at large conferences and meetings? Are they receiving media coverage?

In any case, but particularly if the site is written by the person or organisation you're researching, you will want to check whether what they're saying is "peer-reviewed" — whether it has been published in a professional journal or presented at a conference that is edited or moderated by independent experts. None of these things by themslves proves anything, but taken together they can give you a pretty good picture of how credible — in other words, how reliable — the author is.

If the information you want does not have an author's name attached, check the site's "About Us", "FAQ", "Staff", and "Bios" pages. Ask the same questions about the group or individuals who run the site as you would ask about an author, and do the same checking.

Attributed Content
Using plagiarised content because you "found it on a web site" will not necessarily get you off the hook if someone questions your own research. Make sure the web site you want to quote from is very, very clear about where the information came from. If it's original to that site or that author, there should be a copyright notice or other text telling you so. If the site is quoting others' research, each reference should be exhaustively documented, so you can trace it back to the original source. And don't let it rest there! Go to the original source, and cite that one!

If you just can't tell whether the information is plagiarised or not, find a few phrases that seem distinctive, and do a search on them. For example, the site may include the phrase "Elephants' emotional health is a function of their early environment." If you search on that phrase, enclosed in inverted commas, that web site should come up as the only result, or nearly the only result. If you get a few results, it should be easy to check whether they are the actual source of the information you want, or whether it's just a coincidence that they, too, contain that phrase. (Or perhaps they are quoting the source you started with, which gives that source a little bit of extra credibility.)

Writing Quality
An almost foolproof sign of an untrustworthy site is poor writing, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Credible sources will make sure these things are right (and so will you, if you want to be taken seriously). Careless grammar and spelling suggest that the writer was also careless about the quality and reliability of the research. If they can't even be bothered to find out the difference between "its" and "it's", they probably don't have the energy to get good sources or use good research methodology.

Moreover, even if their research is valid, you risk lowering the credibility of your own paper by including their grammar and spelling errors. And you risk being misunderstood because you quoted writing that is unclear, clumsy, or just plain ludicrous.

If you need to directly quote text that you know has errors in it, you can make sure your instructor knows you know the difference by following the error with [sic] (including the square brackets), like this: Smith wrote, "It's likley [sic] we'll reach a conclusion by morning."

Up-to-Date Content
Web sites have been around for nearly 20 years now, and some of the information out there is at least that old. Many web sites do not have a "last updated" date, and even if they do, they don't specify exactly what content was updated. But there are ways to tell whether the content is relatively up to date.

First, and most obviously, is there a copyright notice? Does the web site list a conference where (and when) the information was first presented? What are the dates of the articles the web site references? (It can't be any older than those articles!) Once again, check out the author: have they published anything more recent? Would that newer research be a better source?

Okay, let's be frank: every source has some bias. It's human nature. But reliable sources will acknowledge that bias, answer common criticisms of their ideas, and use formal research methodologies to minimise the bias and make their results as clear and repeatable as possible.

Unreliable sources, by contrast, will often assert their results as "obvious" or "incontrovertable". They may dismiss or belittle critics without either describing or responding to the critics' objections. They may be secretive about their sources and research methodologies. They may present their results in emotional terms, and have an obvious motive: something in society or academia they want to change, for example, or a particular group they blame for something negative.

It's important to be aware that there are no guarantees, particularly on the Internet. You can only do your best to sort out the good from the not-so-good, and keep your wits about you. Doubt every source until you've uncovered enough evidence that it's reliable and credible. If you can't decide, skip it and try to find the information somewhere less dubious. If you really, really need the information and the only site that has it gives you pause, check with your instructor.

Yes, the Internet is a fabulous treasure trove. But there is junk among the gems, and it takes a keen eye to tell the difference. A little care, and a little detective work, can go a long way in helping you choose your treasures wisely.

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