Once you’ve selected the appropriate research methodology, your next task is to search for sources that can be taken seriously by your audiences and, in so doing, narrow down your topic.
In the following, we will focus mostly on formal research and report writing, but many of the aspects discussed in detail here apply to more informal documents, as well. In any piece of writing, appropriately using credible sources reflects well on your own credibility, whereas using suspicious sources—perhaps because they were the top results of a Google-search filtered by an algorithm informed by your search history, which may show that you haven’t been much concerned with quality sources—undermines your own authority.
A research document full of dubious sources makes you look uneducated, lazy, superficial, or gullible at best, or at worst conniving and deceptive. We live in an age that some have dubbed the “post-truth era,” where “fake news” spread by clickbait-driven edutainment outlets can be a major determining factor in the course of history (White, 2017). Building the critical-thinking skills needed to distinguish truth from lies, good ideas from bad, facts from propaganda, objective viewpoints from spin, and credible sources from dubious ones is not only an academic or civic duty but also key to our collective survival. Learning how to navigate this environment is one of the most important skills we can learn in school.
College or public libraries and their online databases are excellent places to find quality sources, and you should familiarize yourselves with their features, such as subject guides and advanced search filters. Even libraries are populated by sources outside the realm of respectability, however, because they cater to diverse stakeholders and interests by being comprehensive and including entertainment materials in their collections. They also have holdings that can be out of date and only of historical interest. Whether in the library or on the open internet, the only way to be sure that a source is worth using is to develop critical thinking skills and use them to vet your sources, to decide what to use, and to build on their arguments.
Let us build a little more on what we learned in the previous chapters concerning the credibility of research sources.
Developing a good sense of what sources are trustworthy takes time, often through seeing patterns of approval in how diligent professionals rely on certain sources for credible information. If you regularly see respected professionals cite articles from the Scientific American and The Economist, for instance, you can be reasonably assured of those sources’ credibility. If you see few or no professionals cite Popular Mechanics or Infowars and you also see non-professionals cite fantastic, sensational, or shocking stories from them on social media, you have good reasons to doubt their reliability. The same goes for sources regarding certain issues: if 97% of relevant scientists confirm that global climate change results from human activity (Cook et al., 2016), for instance, sources representing or championing the 3% opposition will be seen as lacking credibility. Patterns of source approval take time to track, but you can count on many more immediate ways of assessing credibility in the meantime.
The following indicators are worth considering when assessing print sources (and some online sources, but we will deal with them separately after) because they usually all align in credible sources:
- Author credentials: If the author is identified by name and credentials, you can verify whether he/she has enough expertise on the topic to be a credible authority.
- Generally, the higher the credential or industry position an author holds, the more credible you can expect that author to be. An author with a PhD (doctoral credential) in psychology will be a credible authority on matters of psychology. Talk-show hosts, on the other hand, lack credibility and expertise on such topics since they don’t have the same years of focused study, training, and clinical practice in the field. The PhD is a more advanced credential than a master’s degree, which is more advanced than an undergraduate (four-year bachelor’s) degree, which is more advanced than a college diploma or certificate, which is more advanced than a high school diploma. In the absence of more detailed information, you can roughly gauge how credible authors are in their field based on where they fall on that spectrum of education.
- Years of successful industry experience is also a trustworthy credential. If the author of a trade journal article has 35 years of experience in the industry, and 20 of those as an owner of a thriving business, you can expect expert knowledge from that article if the topic is directly related to the author’s profession.
- Likewise, bloggers can be taken seriously only if they are working professionals writing about their work, and they shouldn’t be relied on outside of their area of expertise. Blogging hobbyists might have some interesting things to say, but without expert training and credentials, their word doesn’t carry much weight. If a backyard astronomer discovers something major in the night sky, for instance, it takes verification and systematic cataloguing from credentialed astronomers employed by renowned institutions before the discovery can be validated.
- Currency: Depending on the topic, how recently the source was published can be a key indicator of credibility.
- A book on communications technology from 1959 is no longer a relevant authority on communications because technology has changed tremendously since then. A 1959 writing guide such as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, however, is still relevant because we still value its advice on writing concisely and because language hasn’t changed drastically since then. (More recent editions have dispensed with outdated advice like using masculine pronouns exclusively when referring to writers, however, since we now value writing that is not gender-exclusive).
- In technology fields, generally, a source may be considered current if it was published in the past 5-10 years; in some sub-disciplines, especially in computing, currency may be reduced to more like 1-2 years depending on how fast the technology is advancing. Disciplines that advance at a slower pace may have major sources still current even after 15-20 years because nothing has come along to replace them. For disciplines like literary or film studies, critical studies published decades ago may still be relevant in some ways but we might find their interpretive perspectives outdated, or they might express discriminatory viewpoints.
- Author objectivity: If the author argues entirely on one side of a debate on which experts disagree, be suspicious of the source’s credibility.
- If the author identifies the other sides of a debate and convincingly challenges them with strong evidence and sound reasoning, then that author’s work is worth considering.
- If the author ignores the controversy altogether, summarily dismisses alternative points of view out of hand, offers dubious arguments driven by logical fallacies, simplifies complex issues by eliminating nuance, or appears to be driven more by profit motives than by a dedication to the truth, then “buyer beware.” Using a slanted source would undermine your own credibility.
- Company websites, especially for smaller businesses, are generally suspect because their main goal is to attract customers and ultimately profit, so they are not going to focus too much on information that may give potential customers reason to think twice, no matter how legitimate it is. A home security alarm company, for instance, is probably not going to post crime statistics in an area that has record-low criminal activity because people will conclude that home security is a non-issue and therefore not worth spending money on. The company is more likely to sidestep rational appeal and prey instead on fears and anxieties by dramatizing scenarios in which your home and loved ones are at risk. If the company website focuses on education, however, by explaining what to look for to assess the credibility of the professional you’re seeking, then you are probably looking at a successful operation that does quality work and doesn’t need to treat customers in a manipulative manner in order to survive.
- Publisher quality: If the source publisher is an established, long-running, big-city (e.g., New York or Toronto), or university press with a large catalogue, you can be reasonably assured that the source underwent an editorial process that helped improve its validity.
- Run a quick background check on the publishing company by looking up its website, reading about it from sources such as the Wikipedia List of English-language book publishing companies (2018) and List of university presses (2018), etc. Since this is quick, informal secondary research, you need not document this research unless you were writing a report specifically on that publishing company’s credibility.
- An editorial process means that more people besides the author reviewed the work for quality assurance prior to publishing.
- A self-published (“vanity press”) book lacking that constructive criticism, however, wouldn’t necessarily have had the benefit of other people moderating the author’s ideas and pushing them towards expert consensus.
- If the publisher isn’t a university press or operates outside of a big city, that doesn’t mean that it lacks credibility, but you may want to do a background check to ensure that it’s not a publisher with a catalog of, say, white-supremacist, conspiracy theorist, or climate change-denying literature. Likewise, if you see that the source is sponsored and/or promoted by special interests like Big Oil or an extremist group, for instance, your suspicions should be raised about the validity of the content.
- See Cornell University Library’s Distinguishing Scholarly from Non-Scholarly Periodicals: A Checklist of Criteria (2017).
- Peer review: As discussed in the previous chapter, any source that undergoes the peer-review process requires the author to make changes suggested by credentialed experts in the field called upon by the publisher. This process ensures that author errors are corrected before the text is published and hence improves both its quality and credibility.
- Writing quality: The quality of the writing is another indicator of credibility because it also suggests that the source underwent an editorial process to ensure quality and respectability.
- A poorly written document, on the other hand, suggests that the author was alone and isn’t a strong enough writer to proofread properly, or that no one involved in its publication was educated enough or cared enough about details to bother to correct writing errors.
- Consider the connection between the quality of one’s writing and the quality of their thinking. If your writing is organized and well structured, abides by accepted conventions, and is error-free, your thinking tends towards all such qualities too. If someone’s writing is messy and rife with errors, on the other hand, it often betrays a scattered and careless mind.
- Notice that quality publications have very few, if any, writing errors.
- References: If a source identifies its sources and all of them meet the credibility standards outlined above, then you can be reasonably certain that the effort the source author made towards formal secondary research ensures the source’s credibility.
- If the source doesn’t identify its research sources, however, or is vague about them (e.g., with expressions like “research shows that …,” “studies have proven that …,” or “experts say that …”), then you should question why the author hasn’t bothered to cite those research studies or name those experts. The reason may be lack of time/space to cite sources properly in the platform used — but it may also be laziness or even deceitfulness.
Online sources pose special challenges to students and professionals conducting research, since most expediently conduct research entirely online, where some of the above indicators of credibility must be rethought a little.
Sometimes the author isn’t revealed on a webpage, perhaps because it’s a company or organization’s website, in which case your scrutiny should shift to the organization, its potential biases, and its agenda. A research project on electronic surveillance, for instance, might turn up the websites of companies selling monitoring systems, in which case you must be wary of any facts or statistics (especially uncited ones, but even cited sources) they use because those sources will likely be cherry-picked to help sell products and services.
Instead of checking the publisher, as you would for a print source, you could consider the domain name; websites with .edu or .gov URL endings usually have higher standards of credibility for the information they publish than sites ending with .com or .org, which are typically the province of commercial enterprises (as in the monitoring systems example above) and special interest groups with unique agendas. However, even sources from university websites should be used cautiously. For instance, a student essay published on a university web page would not be a sophisticated enough source to use for a report — and a professor’s preliminary research on a topic (not submitted to a journal for peer review yet) might contain problematic claims or errors.
Although successful in being a comprehensive repository of knowledge, Wikipedia.org is not generally considered credible and should therefore not appear as a source in a research document unless it’s for a topic so new or niche that no other credible sources for it exist. By the organization’s own admission, “Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found [on their site].” The Web 2.0, user-generated nature of Wikipedia means that its articles are susceptible to vandalism or content changes inconsistent with expert opinion, and they aren’t improved by any formal peer-review process (Wikipedia, 2015). Wikipedia sacrifices credibility for comprehensiveness. For these reasons, a Wikipedia article in a research report is a little laughable; few will take you seriously if they see it there because you will look lazy for stopping at the first available source and picking the lowest-hanging fruit.
A Wikipedia article can be a good place to start in a research task, but no more than that. If you are approaching a topic for the first time, use Wikipedia for a general introduction and a sense of the topic’s scope and key subtopics. (Wikimedia Commons is also a reliable source of images provided you credit them properly.) But if you are going to cite any sources, don’t stop there; use the credible ones that the Wikipedia article cites by scrolling down to the References section, checking them out, and assessing them for their credibility using the criteria outlined above in §13.2.1.
A final indicator of credibility for online sources, similar to the writing-quality check discussed above, is the overall design quality of the website. The attractiveness of a site may be subjective, but a user-friendly and modern design suggests that money was spent relatively recently on improving its quality. If the site looks like it was designed 10-15 years ago and hasn’t had a facelift since, you can suspect that it has lost its currency. Some websites look dated despite their content still being relevant, however, because that content doesn’t change drastically over time. Like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style mentioned above, sites such as The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing can still prove useful as free writing guides despite looking like they were designed when most of their current student users were in diapers.
Investigating and narrowing down a research topic involves using databases to locate reputable sources using criteria to assess for credibility such as the quality of the source author, writing, references, and publisher.
- Choose a research topic based on an aspect of your professional field that piqued your attention in your other courses in the program. Assemble credible sources using a rubric that ranks each relevant source based on the assessment criteria explained in §13.2.1 above (e.g., the criterion for the first line of the rubric may be Author Credibility, which you can score out of 10, with 10 being a bona fide expert in the field and 0 being a dilettante with no experience; the second may be Currency, with 10 points going to a source published last year and 0 for something a century or more out of date, etc.). Provide a brief explanation for each score.
- Consider a recent controversy in the news that all news outlets have covered. Assemble articles from a variety of outlets throughout Canada, the United States, and even internationally, including those with major audience share like the CBC, CNN, FoxNews, and the Guardian, as well as some on the fringe. First compare the articles to identify information that is common to them all, then contrast them to identify the information and analysis that distinguishes them from one another. What conclusions can you draw about the way bias factors into the reporting of world events?
Cook, J., et al. (2016, April 13). Consensus on consensus: A synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters 11, 1-7. http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002/pdf
Cornell University Library. (2017, September 7). Distinguishing scholarly from non-scholarly periodicals: A checklist of criteria. http://guides.library.cornell.edu/scholarlyjournals.
White, A. (2017, January 10). Fake news: Facebook and matters of fact in the post-truth era. Ethics in the News: EJN Report on Challenges for Journalism in the Post-truth Era. http://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/publications/ethics-in-the-news/fake-news
Wikipedia. (2015, December 17). General disclaimer. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:General_disclaimer
Wikipedia. (2017, October 21). List of English-language book publishing companies. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English-language_book_publishing_companies
Wikipedia. (2017, November 18). List of university presses. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_university_presses