Writing about Literature
The Research Essay
The Research Process
Not all sources are equally reliable or credible. The credibility and persuasiveness of your essay will depend, in part, on the credibility of the sources you draw on. This is a good reason to start with reference works that will guide you to credible sources.
Nonetheless, it is very important to learn how to gauge for yourself the credibility of sources. As you do so, keep in mind that finding a source to be credible isn’t the same as agreeing with everything it says. At this stage, concentrate on whether the opinions expressed in a source are worthy of serious consideration, not on whether you agree with them. Here are some especially important questions to consider:
- How credible is the publisher (in the case of books), the periodical (in the case of essays, articles, and reviews), or the sponsoring organization (in the case of Internet sources)?
Generally speaking, academics give most credence to books published by academic and university presses and to articles published in scholarly or professional journals because all such publications undergo a rigorous peer-review process. As a result, you can trust that these publications have been judged credible by more than one recognized expert. For periodicals aimed at a more general audience, you should prefer prominent, highly respected publications such as the Los Angeles Times or the New Yorker to, say, the National Enquirer or People magazine.
Internet sources are not subjected to rigorous review processes, but many sites are created and sponsored by organizations. Be sure to identify the sponsoring organization and carefully consider its nature, status, and purpose. The last part of the domain name will indicate the kind of organization it is: the suffix .com indicates that the ultimate source is a company or commercial, for-profit enterprise; .org, a nonprofit or charitable organization; .gov, a government agency; and .edu, an educational institution.
Though you will often find more reliable information via .gov or .edu sites, this won’t always be the case. Bartleby.com is, for example, only one of many extremely useful commercial sites, whereas many .edu sites feature the work of students who may have much less expertise than you do.
- How credible is the author? Is he or she a recognized expert in the relevant field or on the relevant subject?
Again, publication by a reputable press or in a reputable periodical generally indicates that its author is considered an expert. But you can also investigate further by checking the thumbnail biographies that usually appear within the book or journal (typically near the beginning or end). Has this person been trained or held positions at respected institutions? What else has he or she published?
- How credible is the actual argument?
Assess the source’s argument by applying all that you’ve learned about what makes an argument effective. Does it draw on ample, appropriate, convincing evidence? Does it consider all the relevant evidence? Are its inferences reasonable? Are its claims sound? Does the whole seem fair, balanced, and thorough? Has the author considered possible counter-arguments or alternative points of view?
Finally, researchers in many fields would encourage you to consider the source’s publication date and the currency of the information it contains. In the sciences, for example, preference is almost always given to the most recently published work on a given topic because new scholarly works tend to render older ones obsolete. In the humanities, too, new scholarly works build on old ones. You should consult recently published sources in order to get a sense of what today’s scholars consider the most significant, debatable questions and what answers they offer. Though originality is as important in the humanities as in other scholarly fields, new work in the humanities doesn’t necessarily render older work utterly obsolete. For example, a 1922 article on Shakespeare’s Hamlet may still be as valid and influential as one published in 2002. As a result, you should consider the date of publication in evaluating a source, but don’t let age alone determine its credibility or value.