The Research Paper: How to Spot a Good Source

In research on October 23, 2009 at 1:40 am


If you land on a website or article while doing research, how do you know it’s a good source? In the ’90s, we might have been able to judge a website by how professional it looked (cool photos and nice fonts), but today, anyone can set up a website that looks at least decent. It also might seem that, if the writing on a site sounds official — or if it seems to have what you need, the information must be good, but this isn’t necessarily a good measure either. There are a few things you can look at, however, to know whether the source you’re using is reliable:

Step 1: Look at the author — Look for a person or organization taking responsibility for the article. If there is nobody taking responsibility for the information, be wary of it!

Step 2: Look to see what expertise the author has.  Look for degrees, titles, other past experience. If you’re on a website, you can click the “about us” link (if there is one). You can also Google the person’s name and see what pops up. A degree doesn’t automatically make a person a reliable source, but it can be an indicator.

Step 3: See if you can make a good guess about what motivations the author might have for writing the article. If the author is a politician up for re-election, his motives might be to get votes. If he’s selling vitamins, he might have written the article to get you to buy medicine. If he’s writing as an educator or in a journal, he might just be trying to educate. Think a little about the author’s possible motivations. If someone wants to sell something or get votes, this motivation could influence the information.

Step 4: Where is the article published? If you found the article on a friend’s MySpace page, you’ll probably look at it differently than if you found it on your library’s database.

Looking at these four things can help you weed out a surprising number of articles that are biased or may not be reliable sources of information. Try it, and see how it goes?


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