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What’s Makes a Research Source Reliable?

All college students (and most high school students) are required to write research papers, but often it’s unclear to them exactly what a reliable research source for those papers is.  This uncertainty can result in poor research, poorly documented research papers, and even inadvertent plagiarism.  Today we’ll talk a bit about research and how we determine if a research source is reputable.

First, some background:

Our own personal opinions about issues are fine for everyday conversation with our friends, but our opinions—on their own—are not sufficient to inform or persuade academic readers to have confidence that what we say is regarded as being factual.  For example, we may firmly believe that the earth is flat, but we won’t get very far in an academic argument by simply insisting that the earth is flat because we say it is.  By themselves, our opinions, or beliefs, are regarded, correctly, as strictly personal and nothing more.

However, if we can find other reputable people, with the appropriate credentials (such as, in this case, geologists or physicists) who have studied this issue and have determined, scientifically, that the earth is flat, then our personal opinions have been validated by outside ‘experts’ and have gained credibility.  Credibility is what we strive for in writing research papers and therefore what we look for in the sources we search out to support our point of view . 

Now, to be credible, as mentioned above, a person (referred to as a ‘source’) must be an expert, or at least be recognized as a knowledgeable person, in the field of research upon which he or she comments

A famous example of someone not being an expert in a field about which he commented authoritatively is that of William Shockley.  A Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Shockley in his later life began to investigate human genetics, and came up with the decidedly incorrect opinion that dysgenics (the supposed disproportionate overbreeding of those humans least likely to bring positive genetic characteristics to the race as a whole) was eventually going to destroy humanity.  He advocated paying people with lower IQs to be sterilized to maintain the intellectual ‘purity’ of the race, among other harebrained ideas.  But his ideas were used by certain groups as validation for their abhorrent points of view because he was a Nobel laureate—although not in population genetics.  And to a lot of people, a Nobel prize winner must be smart, and therefore must be speaking with authority, whatever the field of which he speaks.  But William Shockley, as an ordinary person expressing his own personal opinion (even though he couched it in scientific terms), was decidedly not an ‘expert’ in human genetics and could not be used as a reliable source for information in that field.

In short, if we’re writing a paper on population genetics, we would do well to not use William Shockley as a resource.

In the same way, our roommates are not likely to be experts in the field of research we are exploring; neither is ‘Joe’s Shakspere Web Site’ likely to be a very authoritative source on Shakespeare.  What is a reputable, expert source for matters of Shakespeare (to continue with that example) would be a site such as the Folger Shakespeare Library (   Note, by the way, that educational institutions (which tend to be reliable sources of information) use the Internet suffix .edu—as a general rule it’s best not to use a .com or .net site for research purposes.  In fact, other than .edu sources, it’s best not to use the general Internet at all for research—Wikipedia, for instance, may be a good place to begin a search for information about a topic, but we cannot fully trust Wikipedia (or any other .com source) to be a completely accurate purveyor of information.

Of course, one of the best places to find research sources is—no surprise here—Lightner library.  Our library subscribes to a number of academic databases, including EBSCOHost and ProQuest, that exist solely to put eager students together with reliable research sources.  These databases include scholarly journals, peer-reviewed articles, electronic books, and other trustworthy sources.  Naturally, the library contains real books, too, which can be used for research.  In the end, using the library’s resources is the safest way to be certain that our sources are reliable—we can then make use of the knowledge and assistance of our librarians as well, and they are happy to help students find information for research papers.

Are you working on, or going to be working on, a research paper?  Would you like some help getting started, writing the paper, and/or reviewing a draft?  That’s why we’re here.  Come visit ASK for assistance in answering all your academic questions.  Call us at 279-5636 for an appointment with one of our professional Academic Skills Counselors or academic-content peer tutors.  You can also reach us by email at [email protected].   We are looking forward to working with you!

Submitted by:  Jeffrey Carter, Academic Skills Counselor, Writing Tutor, (ASK Office)

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