Research papers, college essays, newspaper articles, and even blog posts all need to have reliable sources. Thanks to the Internet, there is a sea of information readily available on any imaginable subject. But, this does not mean that the data is reliable or even correct.
More often than not, writers include information, facts, and descriptions into their pieces without validating their origin. Resulting in unreliable pieces that can ultimately hurt their reputation.
So, what makes a good source? Well, there a few things you need to consider! Below is a list of questions, that as a professional writer, I believe are crucial in deciding whether or not a source is credible.
Who is the author?
The first thing you need to check is who is the author, and what are his/her credentials. Ask yourself why this person is a good source for the piece you are writing. For instance, are they an expert in the field? Are they part of an entity or organization directly related to your topic? If you’re not sure, try doing a quick Google search on the author(s) or their organization to validate their knowledge.
Furthermore, research, how did your source get his/her information on the first place — do they include references? Does he/she include a bibliography? If they do, these are excellent indicators that a source is credible. If not, copy/paste a sentence into your browser to see if the text can be found elsewhere.
If an author is not listed, I immediately tend to discard the source as it makes it harder for me to verify the information. Nonetheless, if you genuinely believe the information is useful, a great way to go about it is by cross-checking it with other online sites.
Where is the information published?
Especially when citing or using information found online, it is crucial for you to double check where the data is published. The first thing I usually examine is the website’s URL. Websites ending with .gov (government), .org (non-profit), or .edu (educational) are often good credible sources. Nonetheless, beware of websites that use these kinds of suffixes in an attempt to deceive.
Moreover, avoid using websites where the content is collaboratively published (e.g., Wikipedia or individual blogs) as the sole source for your information. These should only be used as a reference or secondary source to help you jump-start your article, essay, or paper. It is a well-known fact that people publish misleading or bias information on purpose throughout these sites.
Furthermore, always review the ‘About Us’ section of websites, online newspapers/magazines, organizations you are using as a reference. Beware of sites that have an amateurish design, grammatical or spelling mistakes, use all caps or symbols within their text as these are often unreliable.
When was the information first published/written?
Currency is super essential when citing sources, but it also has a lot to with the context of your writing. Think of how the date of the publication may affect your piece or argument. For example, if you are writing a technical paper on recent scientific discoveries, you would not want your source to be more than a year old.
Also, always look for updates — well-founded pages are updated and reviewed often. Thus, they are most likely good sources for information. That being said, as a rule of thumb, you should avoid older articles unless they are about well-known popular concepts. Regardless, of the date of publication, a website should always provide some indication of when the information was first created or last reviewed.
Is the information biased?
Anyone and everyone can post an article online expressing their opinion, and this does not necessarily make it accurate. Hence, be truly careful of who you decide to cite in your work. Ask yourself if the information can be verified or if the source is comprehensive.
Also, draw from your own experiences and knowledge on the topic at hand. For instance, if an article you find on the web says: “one out of three men smoke.” Think about how many smokers do you know? Is it possible that one in every three American are smokers? If it something you could see happening, cross-reference it!
Another right way of detecting bias sources is by looking at advertisements. Does the article indirectly or directly reference a specific brand, product, or service? How connected is the author of the ads he is publishing? Remember, many blogs are used to promote services or products, making them (in most cases) unreliable or bias sources. Therefore, learn to differentiate sponsored content from regular data or information.
Overall, good sources will use a fair, reasoned tone to present information. Pay close attention to the tone and lookout for emotional writing. Writing that is overly critical or spiteful often indicates an irrational presentation rather than an unbiased source.
Is the information covered accurately?
As a writer, you must learn to separate good writing from nonprofessional writing. Take a hard look at the way the information is being presented, is it organized? Is it adequately supported by external material such as charts, images, graphs? Is it well cited? All of these questions will help you decide whether a source is good or not.
Also, ask yourself who could be the intended audience of the piece. Pay special attention to the audience addressed throughout the website and see if it fits your own audience.
There you have it!
These simple questions will help you better asses a source before including it in your writing as a reference or direct citation. Also, never forget to give credit where credit is do! I cannot stress this enough, as an experience writer, I have come across articles and websites that re-post information as if it was their own. Aside from the obvious legal issues that this type of practices can incur on, it is also a frown upon within the industry.
Furthermore, remember online sources are not the only good source for a paper or blog. There are various other forms of non-digital sources that are also good and current such as book, journals and encyclopedias.