When you enter a college or university, it is no longer enough to express your opinion on the topic when writing an essay. You are expected to read credible sources and argue for your own view in response to the ideas of others. 

The sources you read and quote define the quality of your argument (and your grade, of course). Thus, the ability to find credible sources for research or determine if a source is credible make a great deal of academic writing skills

Credible Source Definition 

The definition of a credible source may vary depending on the discipline. The general idea is that credible sources are trustworthy and unbiased. The following four characteristics are used to define credible sources in scholarly terms: 

  • Reliability. Reliability describes the quality of the source and the integrity of its author. A reliable source highlights the topic in a balanced and unbiased way to inform or educate the audience. 
  • Authority. An authoritative source is created by experts in the field (researchers, organizations, government agencies, professional journalists). Peer-edited and reputable news journals that assume responsibility for fact-checking hold more authority.    
  • Validity. A valid source is free from ideology, agenda, personal bias, and logical fallacies. For research to be considered a valid credible source, it needs to have proper methodology and sample.    
  • Accuracy. A credible source accurately presents the facts and the opinions of others, gives the context, and mentions relevant limitations of the cited studies.  
how to find credible sources

Evaluating Sources for Credibility

To determine if the source is credible, ask yourself the following questions: 

1. Is the source recent enough?

New research always adds to the available knowledge base, so older sources may be not accurate. Use common sense and field knowledge to determine how recent the source should be. For example, if you are writing about a historical event or a literary piece, some older reviews will work fine. If you are writing about politics, sociology or medicine, even two- or three-year-old sources may be outdated already.

2. Is the source biased? 

Scientific peer-reviewed articles should be 100% free from bias. Any wish to argue for a certain idea makes the study and its results questionable.

At the same time, being supportive of one idea and rejecting another is the basis of any argumentative writing. Arguing for their own position on the topic, authors would focus on the evidence supporting their view and use diverse rhetoric appeals to persuade readers that only their position is right (a form of bias). It doesn’t make their articles non-credible though.

In case of opinion articles and reviews, you need to reject the sources where the author’s bias is not due to personal convictions but due to censorship, an ideology of the state, or the need to sell a definite product or service. This is why it is important to consider bias along with the intention of the author as discussed further.

3. What is the intention of the author?

Choose the sources that were created with the intention to inform and enlighten the audience. The sources created with marketing, political, or entertaining motives, are not suitable for research.

4. Is there supporting evidence?

To avoid plagiarism and inaccuracy, the author should cite all the information, which is not common knowledge. For internet articles, the reference list is not common, but credible sources do refer to the original source by linking to it. If a source includes certain statistics or claims without referring readers to the sources where this information may be checked, it cannot be counted credible.

5. What is known about the author?

Peer-reviewed journals check the identity of the author, so this question relates to internet sources more. It is ok to use a source where a reputable organization acts as an author, for example, the World Health Organisation, American Psychological Organisation, governmental agencies, etc. Otherwise, a credible internet source will include the full name of the author and the author’s bio, as well as the date of publication.

If multiple authors can edit the text at their own discretion, the source cannot be considered credible. This is a sure argument against Wikipedia credibility.       

evaluating sources for credibility

Finding Credible Sources Online

A proven way to find credible sources is to visit a university library. However, more and more students prefer finding sources online. If you are looking for credible sources online, there are several strategies to use: 

  • browse online scholarly databases like JSTOR, EBSCO, ProQuest and similar. If you are not ready to pay for the subscription, don’t refuse from this option right away, as there are some walkarounds you can use. For example, you can have several JSTOR articles “on the shelf” for free; rotating the resources on your shelf, you’ll be able to access a wealth of scholarly articles and make a substantial research 
  • do a search using Google Scholar paying specific attention to sources that are sparingly cited (see “Cited by [number]” on the last line of each search result)  
  • do a simple search further selecting to read articles published on credible websites or in the credible journals and magazines 
  • set the engine to show only books in the results: the access to them may be restricted, but, often, you will be able to access one or two chapters; since a keyword search will make you land on a relevant chapter, this may be more than enough 

Avoid any type of wikis and personal blogs, unless a blog is written by a prominent expert, politician or activist. 

Recently, there has been a marked shift in the assessment of the credibility of comments and posts in social media. While one would never consider relying on them before, public comments from experts and politicians now bear the same level of credibility as their claims on interviews and press conferences. Still, as long as there are no conventions about how to format such references, it might still be better to cite a secondary source (you most probably would like to cite posts and twits that triggered media attention).         

Here is the list of credible websites, magazines, and journals you can cite in your essay. 

Concluding Thoughts

Selecting credible sources is an important stage of writing an essay or a research paper. Do not think that it is an easy solution to read popular articles or Wikipedia and then just fake your sources. Starting with credible sources, you will be sure you are on the right track and base your research or a research proposal on the right facts and interesting ideas.

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