How do you know whether a source is a worthwhile one?
You can demonstrate your competence and credibility by using impressive sources in your work. Depending on your subject, ‘impressive’ might include your grandmother, the local newspaper, a website, or a print magazine.
However, in 90% of your writing, there is a very clear hierarchy of importance:
- Scholarly Sources
‘Scholarly’ refers to the way an article is published. A scholarly article is reviewed by volunteers who are recognized experts in a given field. Most databases (like Proquest or Lexis-Nexis) have an option to require ‘scholarly’ or ‘peer-reviewed’ sources only. Using Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com/) can be a good starting point to find these resources.
Depending on your instructor, school, and writing situation certain government websites may be considered scholarly (think the Center for Disease Control for statistics on illness, or the Census Bureau for facts on population growth).
These sources can be dense and hard to read but they usually include some sort of summary and trying to puzzle through their meaning will help you more deeply understand a subject area.
- Print Sources
Print sources include nationally recognized newspapers and magazines (think The Washington Post, The New York Times, Time Magazine, Wired Magazine etc.). They have dedicated editorial boards and fact checkers that assure the content published is of a high quality. Even though these are ‘print’ sources, you will most likely access them via a computer.
- Primary Sources
Primary sources are first-hand accounts, so this is where your grandmother may become important. If you are writing about America in the 1950s, your grandmother may be an expert witness. So you would be establishing your credibility if you were to quote “a woman who was born in 1948 and who lived through the 1950s in an all-American town.”
Your credibility falls off a cliff when you start using commercial websites. Can you use a quote from an Apple Computer spokesperson concerning the importance of good software design? Maybe…but the reason Apple’s website would contain such information is to achieve its own rhetorical goals – not to present information fairly. By the time you get to blogs, Wikipedia, and other content created by non-experts (or that is completely anonymous) you are wasting your time to quote directly.This is not to say that information found from such sources is worthless. Information you find from these kinds of sources can be incredibly important – you just need to find a more credible source for the same information. You will also learn more about your subject by consulting these sites, and can refine your search terms when using better quality sources. Research is, by its nature, iterative. Often you have to read a lot to find a few useful sources.