Research: what are ‘credible sources’?

Students doing research for an Extended Essay, or in preparation for an IB English Interactive Oral, or for any other research project, need to use credible sources.

But what exactly is a credible source?

Basically you are looking for information written by someone who has some special training or expertise in the subject you are researching: a university professor, or a lawyer, or a doctor, or a carpenter, for example, all have expertise in certain areas. Note, however, that a physics professor writing about physics has a certain credibility, while a physics professor writing about politics has no more expertise, necessarily, than anyone else.

On the internet, avoid citing personal blogs by unidentified authors, or sites where anyone can post a comment. Such information may be right, or may be wrong; but as a source in an academic research paper it has no credibility. You may find more reliable information on sites with URLs that end in .gov (government sites), .org (non-profit organizations), or .edu (academic institutions like universities). Even here, however, beware: governments lie, or publish propaganda; non-profit organizations may still be biased; and since we know that university professors often disagree violently with each other, it would be unwise to accept without question what any single professor might say.

Wikipedia is inherently unreliable, because its pages can be edited by anyone. However, at the bottom of most Wikipedia pages is a list of sources used in writing the article, and these sources might be good places to look for credible information.

“Real” encyclopedias like the Encyclopedia Britannica might, you would think, offer more credibility—but think again. Can their editors be trusted more than Wikipedia’s editors? Maybe, or maybe not. Besides, encyclopedias of all kinds are little more than starting points for your research. Use them to gather some initial ideas and get an overview of the subject, but then dig in to their sources of information and go further.

Similarly, do not give automatic credibility to publications like the New York Times: such mainstream, “respectable” newspapers and magazines have been found guilty of printing misinformation on many occasions.

Going Further (2013)

For more (and sometimes different) advice on finding credible sources for your research, have a look at these links:

Mrs. Fitzgerald recommends these sites:

http://21cif.com/tools/evaluate/ – a script which helps students discuss and evaluate websites which was created by a joint project of the Illinois Math & Science Academy and the US Dept of Ed.  I use their tools often with classes.  (Go back to main page and choose Tutorials to see other useful resources).

http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/Guides/Internet/Evaluate.html – a help guide for UC Berkeley students

http://www.vtstutorials.ac.uk/detective/index.html – EXCELLENT tutorial created by Intute Virtual Training and the LearnHigher project in the UK to help university students

http://www.ithaca.edu/library/training/think.html – a guide create by librarians at Ithaca College to help their students

http://www.classzone.com/books/research_guide/page_build.cfm?content=web_eval_criteria&state=none – brief list of website criteria created by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

And Mr. O’Reilly has sent me these recommendations:

General
http://www.brad.ac.uk/developme/developingskills/literature_reviews/index13.php
http://www.library.cornell.edu/olinuris/ref/research/skill26.htm
http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/markport/best/evaluate.htm

Internet credibility
http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/web-eval-sites.htm
http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/553/01/

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