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SPC 120: Research Tutorial

Credible Sources

What does credibility of sources mean and why is it important to your speech assignments?  

When informing or persuading your audience about your selected topic, you will want to present evidence that is objective, credible, and factual. The information providing such evidence is written by authors with expertise and knowledge. Library resources provide scholarly sources of information.

While free websites also play a role in research, they require careful review to ensure that the information provided is credible and academically trustworthy since it can be difficult to ascertain the expertise, knowledge, and purpose of the creator/author of the site. Learning how to evaluate information effectively and think critically about information is a skill you will use not only as a student but also in all the life decisions you will make!

Evaluating Sources for Credibility

Students often receive research assignments requiring the use of credible sources. But what does it mean for a source to be "credible"? Why is it important to use these sources? And how can you tell if a source is credible?

When we describe a source as "credible," we're basically saying that the information is high quality and trustworthy. Essentially, that we can believe what the source is telling us.

When you use high-quality sources to back up your points, you demonstrate your own credibility as a writer, thereby contributing to the overall effectiveness of your argument. The best quality research builds on other high quality research. This is true of both your own work and the work of professional researchers.

There are several factors that contribute to a source's credibility. Among them are the author's level of expertise, her point of view, and the source's publication date.

The author's level of expertise on the topic he or she is writing about could take the form of an advanced degree or other extensive experience in the field. A credible source often provides information about the author's credentials.

Sometimes, however, the author's credentials may not be listed, and the publication itself can be the marker of quality. This is often true for some non-scholarly publications like well-respected newspapers and magazines, where the article's content is critically examined as part of the publication process.

Another important component of a source's credibility is its point of view, in particular its potential bias. Bias is an inaccurate or unfair presentation of information. In some cases, bias is intentional. A group with its own agenda may sponsor research or information, and this sponsorship may influence the results. Bias can also be unintentional. A writer's perspective may prevent him or her from being able to see all sides of an issue.

Sometimes you need unbiased facts to support your point. But other times you might want people's opinions, and that's OK as long as you acknowledge the source's perspective in your work. While bias can be difficult to detect, be aware that it can exist in any kind of source, including things you find through the library.

In the academic publishing world, books and articles go through a rigorous editorial process in which an editor or group of scholars evaluate the work's quality. When it comes to journal articles, this process is called peer review. Peer-reviewed articles are considered high quality, because the review process helps to filter out sources that are written by unqualified or biased authors.

Finally, with any source, consider when it was published or last updated. Even something that was once high-quality can now be out-of-date and unsuitable for some purposes. If I needed current statistics on the average cost of college in the United States, a source published in the 1990s would be out of date. However, if I were looking at the the increase in college tuition over the last few decades, a source from the 1990s might fit my purposes.

Of course, not every credible source is appropriate for your research. Be sure to evaluate not only a source's trustworthiness, but also its appropriateness for your argument.

For help finding credible sources or determining whether a source you've found is credible, ask a librarian!

license link CC-BY-NC-SA This video is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license. Courtesy of the North Carolina State University Libraries. Published in August 2013.

The ABC test to evaluate sources

To summarize, here is a quick way to consider the reliability of a information source... it's ABCs.

Author

As noted in the video, does the author of the website have expertise and knowledge of the topic? If the author is unknown, what is the expertise of the online publication or the organization that created the website?

Bias

From what perspective is the author writing? There are two very different types of bias: 1) bias that, intentionally or unintentionally distorts reality or facts; and 2) bias that takes a point of view within a given reality. The first can be dangerous to your research, but the second can be valuable as you can understand an issue from varying points of view and use that information to help persuade your audience. Indeed, your persuasion speech will be biased. 

Example: An example of the latter would be political news magazines that might report on an incident differently without distorting the reality of an event. This could be an article on a topic such as gun legislation published in The New Republic (a liberal/progressive publication) or The National Review (a conservative publication). Each would offer a differing point of view but not in the reporting of the facts surrounding the legislation.

Currency

Was this information written recently? For example, an article about Jupiter written in the 1990s will state that the planet has 16 moons. Since the publication of this information, telescopes have become very powerful, and NASA has sent orbiters to Jupiter. As of June 2017, 69 moons have been found to orbit the planet Jupiter. For this topic and many others, currency matters! 

Using the library databases helps to ensure your use of academically appropriate sources. Library sources such as books and journals go through an editorial process as they are reviewed and evaluated for their accuracy and objectivity with consideration given to expertise of the author and reputation of the source. It's then up to you to Finally, the sources you select must also be highly relevant for your topic and persuasive argument. 

Follow Up Challenge!