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Let’s get credible, credible!

July 31, 2013

Dear Writing Diary,

I have been assigned a research paper on education reform for my English 1000 class. The professor just handed back our rough drafts, and overall, she commented that I had not collected strong enough sources to support my argument, even writing “not credible” beside some of my quotes. All of my sources connect to my research topic, and none of them are from Wikipedia. I have blog entries written by educators, reports from news websites, and an interview with my mom, a fourth grade teacher. Why are those sources not credible? Furthermore, how can I tell the difference between a credible source and a source I shouldn’t use for this project and future writing endeavors? I’m really not even sure what the difference between a primary source and a secondary source really is? Please help before I become sourced-out!



Messy Sources

My dearest Messy,

Don’t let research be the source of your writing woes, especially since just a little bit of work and understanding can reduce your stress and improve your writing (not to mention your grade). Many writers prefer to write about things they know; we all feel more comfortable talking and writing about topics with which they are familiar either from personal experience or previous research. Letting this guide your topic choice, though, can be very limiting, while also eliminating the chance to learn something new about a topic you may (or may not) find interesting. Thanks to research, a writer can choose and explore nearly any topic they want whether she is an expert or just thinking about it for the first time. Through research, anyone can find and gather information that can be used to influence their topic decision and later support their argument when completing a writing task, be it school-related or personal.

To start the research process, you should first identify your topic, as you have done in your letter. Now that we have a research focus, we can start to think about the process of gathering sources and information. You should then think about what types of sources will be appropriate for your project: Do I need scholarly or professional sources? Primary or secondary? Formal or informal? Which genres? All of these questions are important to ask yourself before and during your research process. Since you seem to know how to go about finding sources, I’m not going to parse through all the details, but do keep this in mind: Research is more than a Google search. Yes, this is a great place to start, and you would be remiss to not include a simple Google search in your search for sources, but it just can’t be your only research tool. Your university or local library also has some great tools and resources that can be a huge help, including database access, magazines and journals (electronic and physical copies), films, and even books. Yes, books are still being printed and filled with valuable information.

Now that we have talked about focusing and finding sources, let’s talk about reviewing them for credibility. Credible sources are ones the reader can trust. We trust that the author’s ideas are his or her own and can be backed up with evidence. When writing a research paper, doing research, or reading for background information, writers should ALWAYS use a credible source. Citing non-credible sources can damage a writer’s relationship, or ethos, with his or her readers. Keep in mind that the definition of a credible source depends on the audience, the topic, and the discipline.

The important thing, then, is to ask yourself the right questions during your research process to ensure that you are identifying credible sources along the way, making the writing of a text that incorporates research much easier. Here are some important questions to consider when gathering sources and information:

  • Who is the author? Is he or she known and respected in the specific field? Citing a speech from Martin Luther King Jr. on Civil Rights is usually a better choice than citing a speech from John Williams, who is an unknown person.
  • When was the material published? Typically, dated publications, from the 1990s and older, may have dated information, and more current information may be available.  The exception for this is with primary sources, and primary versus secondary sources are discussed below. Biases can sometimes be masked. Look for over-generalized statements or authors writing for religious or political groups.
  •  What is the purpose of this source? When we find sources, we want to find clear and unbiased ones that give the facts. We don’t want opinions that aim to alter and persuade people’s views.
  • How is this source proved? Does the publication have references and evidence to prove its point? If the publication just gives claims without support, it may not be the best source.
  • Is this website from an organization or author I can trust? Websites from governmental agencies or institutions are most likely better resources than a website anyone can post to, like Wikipedia.

In regard to your uncertainty about the difference(s) between primary and secondary sources, don’t worry too much. After brief explanations of each, you should be able to start understanding and identifying both types of sources. A primary source is a document, speech, or other piece of evidence that was created during the period of study, including autobiographies, letters, diary entries, photographs, public records, poetry, news film footage, and speeches. A secondary source provides interpretation and analysis of primary sources, including textbooks, encyclopedias, databases, and literary analyses or critiques.

That’s about it! See, it wasn’t so messy after all, was it? Research can be a tricky task, but by asking yourself critical questions about your sources and your focus during the process, you can construct strong arguments with ample credible information.

To Infinity and Beyond!

Your Writing Confidant

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