Unnamed Sources: Okay in Tabloids, Not-So-Great in Research

It is impossible to read celebrity gossip without the mention of unnamed sources, usually identified as someone close to the star or “someone in the know.”

Of course, let’s face it. No one really reads gossip magazines for accuracy. And whether or not some star has had a facelift or is having an affair really has little real effect on anyone’s life. (Unless you’re the plastic surgeon raking in money on the star’s vanity or desperation or the other half of the affair.)

But in research, you have to name your sources. This can be a difficult concept to understand for beginning researchers. I think this may be because they don’t yet have a sense that their work has an audience. They want to do the right things because they want to make a passing grade, but they don’t see beyond that to a wider audience. Once you begin writing for more than your instructor, you want to make sure you get your point across and that you convince people. So you want the best sources and you want your readers to know who they are.

Take this hypothetical passage from a paper. (This is not an actual student paper, just a composite of memories from my time teaching composition):

Gun control doesn’t let people protect themselves. “If someone had been armed in that room, the shooter would have been dead before he could have done more damage” (Smith 180).

Now, at this point, the beginning researcher probably thinks that things are going well. After all, she used a quotation and parenthetical citation, both of which were requirements for the paper.

But here’s the problem: Who said this about guns and why should we care? There are more possibilities than we can count. After any disaster, journalists always question bystanders, relatives, and friends of those affected. How do we know that this statement should be taken at face value? Let’s look at a few possibilities:

  • The quotation comes from Fred Johnson in a book by Josie Smith. Fred is a gun fanatic and a loyal member of the NRA who goes shooting on the weekends. But he’s never been in a hostage situation.
  • John Parker, a twenty-year veteran of the Metro police force. He has worked on several cases of random gun violence and teaches gun safety to community members.
  • Jessica Smith, a parent of one of the victims, who has written a book on her experience of losing a child to gun violence.
  • Parker Smith, who is a politician, is running for re-election and is courting powerful lobbies.
  • Margaret Smith, a researcher, who has conducted ten studies of gun violence in schools and how they could have been prevented.

As you can quickly see, each person’s expertise and experience color the quotations. A dropped quotation leaves the reader in mid-air wondering about the validity and reliability of the source. Of course, the reader still has work to do. Can a grieving mother be objective about how her child might have been saved? Can a politician buck a powerful lobby? But at least, the reader now has some information to evaluate the source.

So when using sources in your research, always make sure you give them proper attribution. It’s not terribly hard. In our example, it could be as simple as this:

Gun control doesn’t let people protect themselves. Jessica Smith, mother of one of the victims of the Narcissus shooting states, “If someone had been armed in that room, the shooter would have been dead before he could have done more damage” (180).

Just remember, until you’re working for a tabloid, always identify your sources.

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