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What Is a Credible Source?

Authored By: 
Ian Rusten

What is a credible source? Can you turn to Wikipedia as a resource for your next research assignment? How do you choose which of the articles you just found to use as proof of your claim? Whether you are writing about school lunch, GMOs, or national security vs. privacy, learning how to identify a credible source is a necessary skill, especially in this age of abundant information.  Gone are the days of long and arduous trips to the library in search of encyclopedias and microfiches of old newspapers. In its place we have an Internet chock-full of websites and articles and blogs and wikis claiming reliability and providing information on almost any topic imaginable.

You read the assignment, chose a topic, identified the issue and now you really need to dig into the argument and find evidence to support your claim. You turn on your computer and enter the issue into your search engine of choice and suddenly a Wikipedia page and 10 possible articles pop up. Click on the Wikipedia page; ahhh, there is the information you want. Is that good enough? No!

Before using any source, you must determine if the source is credible (reliable and able to be trusted). Can you identify the author? Can you trust the source? Can you believe the information? Can you identify the author’s bias (almost all authors have some form of bias) and determine if the source is really trustworthy?

Discerning the credibility of a source is by no means easy, but there are several key questions you can ask when you encounter a source you would like to use.

Who: Who is the author or organization that published the information?   Is the author or organization known and/or reputable?  Does the author/organization have a known agenda?          

What: What is the main idea of the piece?  What are the key claims?  Are the claims backed up with research and evidence? Is the research credible and reliable? Is there a bibliography or sources cited page? Are the sources cited reliable?

Where: Where is the source from? Is the website or text well known and generally credible?  If using a website, how did you get to the website; was it through a chain of reliable sources?

When: When was the source written? Is the research still relevant and up-to-date?

Why: Why this source? What is its purpose? Can you identify any obvious agenda or bias?

Finding the answer to these questions is not always easy. To make sound decisions about whether a source is credible sometimes requires a bit of digging, critical reading and use of prior knowledge or personal judgment. It will be worth it in the long run, and your audience will thank you!

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