The value of a source

Identifying credible sources for your essay

The use of proper source material is a required skill for anyone writing essays at college and university level. Reputable sources can mean the difference between a passing grade and a failing grade in any essay, no matter how well written. In recent years the Internet has brought knowledge to the fingertips of anyone with access, the only problem is learning to sort the reputable sources from among the vast amount of information that is available online.

Make sure the source material you use in your essays is credible.

In the past students were taught, to some degree, to navigate their local libraries in search of reference materials to do their research. They were taught to use the card catalogue, both the physical and the computer versions, to find information in either periodical or book form. This search has evolved to the point that now interconnected libraries share information and will transfer a book between libraries as needed. A greater change in the way sources for essays are located has come with the advancement of the Internet, a student looking up information for a paper will now be inundated with web sites claiming to know about their topic. The problem now is to decide what is reliable and what is unreliable information. Knowing how to distinguish between the two will lead to better college and university grades but also to help you sift through information throughout your life.

There are 10 questions to ask concerning any internet sources you may wish to use in an essay:

  1. Are the author’s qualifications listed, are the qualifications relevant and do they make the author an authority on this subject?
  2. Does the author cite sources when needed and are these sources referenced?
  3. Does the article maintain an authoritative and credible tone?
  4. If from a database, is the article from a peer-reviewed source? Peer-review can lend credibility.
  5. Is the article current? Try to stay current, within 3 to 5 years, to avoid any outdated information (there are some exceptions – for legal topics, you will need to check if the information contained in the source is up to date using updaters and resources such as ‘Is it in force?’; and some topics such as history naturally make use of older material. Also an essay examining the history of a topic may of course make use of older sources. So current articles are not always appropriate – it depends what your essay is about).
  6. Is the article written in a fair and objective manner?
  7. Does the information in the article validate your essay?
  8. Is the article on an active and maintained site?
  9. Does the author substantiate his/her arguments?
  10. Is the information on the Wikipedia site? This is not a reputable source. Follow up on and study the references cited on the Wikipedia page, these may be used if reputable.

The student writer must have a grasp of what is an acceptable source, especially when citing documents, articles and other material from the internet. Unacceptable sources will invalidate the entire essay and it, with its author, will be dismissed as unreliable. The above ideas and a bit of common sense should be the only tools you will need to make wise choices when validating your Internet sources