Why is it wise to avoid unreliable sources?

Information from unreliable sources is not always true, up-to-date, or accurate. Using unreliable sources in an academic paper can weaken the credibility of the writer, dilute the writer’s argument, and detract from the overall strength of the paper.

What kind of sources should be avoided?

While the Internet provides a plethora of information on almost any topic imaginable, not all of its content can be trusted. Students should be cautiously selective while doing research and avoid sources that may contain unreliable information:

  • Popular and collective websites (ask.com, about.com, WebMD.com, etc.): Websites such as these provide articles and information that has been collected from other sources that may not be reliable. While the sponsors of these sites usually employ writers who research the topics, citations for the sources of the data are not always provided.
  • Wikipedia: Wikipedia is an online open-source encyclopedia, which means that it can be edited by anyone. While the information on the site is audited by a Wikipedia editor, the information found there may or may not be correct or current.
  • Source material based solely on opinion: While material that conveys opinions and beliefs may have some validity, reliable sources that back up the opinion or belief with facts and trustworthy information should also be sought. If the opinion piece does not include data from reliable sources, a writer may choose not to include it as a source.

Note: Some sources, such as Wikipedia, provide a works cited list or reference list. Some of the cited works could be reliable, but checking the original source and interpreting the information yourself provides the opportunity to confirm its validity.

Where are credible, reliable sources found?

  • Academic databases: These databases, such as Academic Search Premier and JSTOR, include searchable collections of scholarly works, academic journals, online encyclopedias, and helpful bibliographies and can usually be accessed through a college library website.
  • Academic peer-reviewed journals: Journal articles that have been peer-reviewed are generally considered reliable because they have been examined by experts in the field for accuracy and quality.
  • Google scholar: This Internet search engine helps the user to locate scholarly literature in the form of articles and books, professional societies’ websites, online academic websites, and more.
  • Library reference or research desk: Library staff can provide useful services, such as assistance with the use of library research tools, guidance with identifying credible and non-credible sources, and selection of reliable sources.

Why is it important to provide reliable support for a point?

When a writer makes a point or claim, his or her position should be supported by evidence from one or more reliable sources. Evidence from reliable sources can make an argument more convincing and build the credibility of the writer. In contrast, unsupported points or points supported by unreliable sources can compromise the integrity of the paper and the writer.

What kind of additional support can be added?

  • Quantitative data, such as statistics
    • Example: Present the percentage of a specific ethnic population in low-income housing units when making a claim related to racial poverty.
  • Empirical evidence from scientific research
    • Example: Provide data from qualitative research when comparing the effectiveness of different methods for teaching young children to read.
  • Quotes, paraphrases, and summaries from experts and specialists
    • Example: Use a quote from General Petraeus of the U.S. Army when discussing the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Anecdotal evidence and relevant narrative
    • Example: Interview a health food store owner to learn more about his or her experience with vegetarian food choices; include relevant narrative about personal experience with choosing a vegetarian lifestyle.

 What actions can be taken to locate additional support?

  • Search reputable academic databases: These databases, such as Academic Search Premier and JSTOR, include searchable collections of scholarly works, academic journals, online encyclopedias, and helpful bibliographies that can usually be accessed through a college library website.
  • Search credible news sources: Databases, such as Access World News, can be used to locate news articles from around the world. Articles from reputable news sources may also be found through careful Internet searches.
  • Search academic peer-reviewed journals: Journal articles that have been peer-reviewed are generally considered reliable because they have been examined by experts in their field for accuracy and quality.
  • Search Google scholar: This Internet search engine helps the user locate scholarly literature in the form of articles and books, professional societies’ websites, online academic websites, and more.
  • Ask for help at the library research desk: Library staff can provide useful services, such as assistance with the use of library research tools, guidance with identifying credible and non-credible sources, and personalized assistance with the selection of reliable sources.

Many emerging writers struggle with connecting sourced material to their claims and to their thesis. Oftentimes, this is because they’re too close to their work and think that the connection between claim and evidence is completely apparent to the reader.

Even if the connection is readily visible, authors should still follow up a piece of sourced material with an explanation of its relevance to the author’s point, purpose, and/or thesis. Such connections (“analysis”) should be made directly following the sourced material.

Let's look at an example:

Let’s say that I’m writing a research paper that suggests offshore drilling should be banned, and my thesis is as follows:

Though some may argue that offshore drilling provides economic advantages and would lessen our dependence on foreign oil, the environmental and economic consequences of an oil spill are so drastic that they far outweigh the advantages.

Main points:

  • The known economic impact of past oil spills 
  • The potential impact of oil spills on marine and human life
  • A comparison between advantages and disadvantages of offshore drilling 
  • A response to potential counterarguments

My conclusion would then include a proposal to ban offshore drilling.

For more information on Analyzing Evidence, see also: 

http://writingcommons.org/research/integrate-evidence/incorporate-evidence/analyze-evidence