What Makes a Good Source? (Or Why Should I Believe You?)
Posted January 23, 2009on:
Imagine you’re having an argument with a friend. You say that working out is more important than eating right in losing weight, and he says the opposite.
Then he says, “My friend Tony also think eating right is more important.”
Has the argument become stronger because your friend has back-up?
Yep, that’s a trick question. You have to evaluate the source.
Who is this Tony? If he’s a guy who sits on the couch and eats potato chips and keeps thin by taking illegal drugs, then you’re probably not going to give his opinion much weight. But let’s say that Tony is a nutrition major who has lost 50 pounds in the past year through changing his eating habits. Then you’re probably going to pay a little more attention. Tony is now much more credible.
And that’s always your goal: to back up your arguments with credible (believable) sources.
So what makes a source credible? Here are some basic criteria:
- Author’s credentials. What are some of the things that make an author believable?
- Experience in the field. If you’re doing a paper on discipline techniques in elementary school, then an article by someone who has taught kindergarten for ten years would probably be helpful.
- Degrees. Having a degree in the field can certainly help. If I’m looking for help with my chronic sinus infections, then I feel more comfortable with an article by a doctor than one by a regular person like me.
- Reputation. Do other people in the field regard this author as an expert?
- When was the source published? In many fields (such as medicine and information technology), sources more than a few years old are out of date.
- Does this relate to my argument? The source material must make your argument stronger and not be tangential to your point. Going back to your argument with your friend, it would not be helpful to the argument to say that you know several people who don’t exercise, and they are very angry people. Maybe so, but that has nothing to do with losing weight.
- A word about scholarly journals. While not infallible, scholarly journals are a good place to conduct research because much of the source evaluation has been done for you.
- Journals are the places where experts in the field publish findings from studies and experiments.
- The articles are not published without first being peer reviewed by two or more other experts in the field.
Keep in mind that judging a source is a process of weighing attributes. The fact that the author has a doctorate does not always mean the information is good. Neither does experience. Someone can have been in a job for fifty years, but really has just experienced the same year fifty times. The more critical thinking you bring to judging sources, the stronger your papers and presentations will be.