Trustworthy Sources: What to Look For

So you've just received that research project assignment. Now—the first step—you think about and actually write down for yourself what your writing process is going to be and how research will fit into the scheme.

Before going any further, be sure you understand, according to the assignment and your professor, exactly what kinds of sources are acceptable. Do you need to find books in print? Are reputable e-books okay? Can you use online material? Does it have to be from subscription databases? What about material you find through a general Google search? These are all important questions that you should be clear on before starting; otherwise, you run the risk of finding great information but from an inappropriate source. Worst-case scenario: you end up completing the assignment and turning it in, having perfected your writing process and having found great quotes from your research, only to receive a poor grade—or even a failing grade—because you used the wrong kind of sources.

But providing you have a research plan for yourself and a clear idea of what types of sources are appropriate, you will eventually face the challenge that any researcher faces: evaluating trustworthy versus untrustworthy sources.

There are a few key questions you can ask yourself that should steer you clear of untrustworthy sources:

1) Has what I've found been vetted?

Vetted is an uncommon word, which is surprising, given that the "vetting question" should be the most common question we ask about what we find on the Web. To vet should be the verb for the twenty-first century!

If something has been vetted, that means it has been checked or verified. So an article that is published in a reputable scholarly journal or a book that has been published by a university press will have gone through a rigorous vetting process. Other knowledgeable scholars in the field have read the material and agreed it should be published. Material you find through subscription databases has also gone through a rigorous process of vetting.

Unfortunately, what we find through general Web search engines like Google or Yahoo! may—or may not—have been similarly vetted. It is often very hard to tell.

Another way of asking the question about whether research we find has been vetted is to ask: Is this material published or just public? The difference is that published work has gone through some system of editorial or scholarly oversight. Someone has checked—or vetted—the work.

We often think of material that is on the Web as "published," but it isn't. It is just public—available to anyone. There is nothing to say that what has been made public has gone through any kind of vetting process, so always ask yourself whether research material you find is published or just public. If you are not sure which it is, skip it and move on.

2) Who is the author, and what do you know about the author?

The question of authorship is important, though perhaps less so than you might think, since we are not always doing research to find the "biggest name" who has written on any given topic. And recall that by "author" we might mean one person, a group of researchers and writers, or an organization of some kind. (For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics might be the author of research material we find on the Web.) Regardless, being able to determine an author is ultimately a matter of being able to determine who is taking responsibility for the research material that we have found. Once we can make that determination, we need to ask whether there is enough information to make a judgment about author credibility. Again, when in doubt, move on.

3) What Am I Reading?

This sounds like an obvious question of comprehension, like, "Do I understand this?" But this question is different. It is not about comprehending the material. It is about deciding whether you are reading fact, opinion, or something in between.

It is not that factual material is always "good" research material and opinion is always "bad." In fact, depending on the research assignment, you might be required to find opinion-based material.

The question you need to ask is to what degree the research material you have found is forthcoming about whether it is fact, opinion, or something in between. And in the case of opinion, or interpretation, ask yourself if the author has provided reliable "proof" for the opinion being put forward. Has the author made a legitimate case? Or has the author just stated the case very loudly? There is a big difference.

Most credible, vetted sources will be clear about whether they are reporting factual data or, like a Web log, offering individual opinion.