by Amanda Clark
You just got the assignment: the infamous end-of-year research paper. Your teacher, Mrs. Citey, is a stickler when it comes to bibliographies, and you’re nervous because you don’t know where to find legit sources. The internet is a wealth of information, but that also makes it hard to weed out the bad sites from the good.
We’re here to help! It’s easy to make sure your sources are credible by keeping these four questions in mind. (But first, make sure you know: what is a bibliography?)
- Who wrote it?
This sounds simple enough, but today, even a 13-year-old can write a post about a topic you might be researching and post it on his personal blog. Which is great for him, but not for your research paper. Pay special attention to the credibility of the author. You can even Google them to find out about their background and expertise.
You might discover that your author teaches at a credible university or has an advanced degree in the topic—sweet! But you also might find that your author wrote the article as a hobby after playing video games and hasn’t even graduated from middle school. (Or worse, plagiarized all of the content.)
- Is it a primary or secondary source?
This next question may take you back to a sixth-grade social studies class, when you learned the differences between primary and secondary sources. That was probably a while ago, so let’s review. A primary source provides first-hand evidence about a topic in the form of a diary entry, letter, artifact or another direct source. A secondary source describes or analyzes primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include a history textbook, a journal article, or your own research paper.
Primary sources add credibility to your paper but are sometimes difficult to find. You can still use secondary sources, but you have to be more wary of where they come from. It’s easier to trust a diary entry from George Washington than a random site listing his personal achievements. Primary sources require a little more digging, but they’ll add an impressive entry to that stellar works cited page or bibliography in the making.
- What is the domain?
We live in an overpopulated internet world of .coms, where anyone can buy a domain for $9.99 a year. Although this phenomenon has multiplied the amount of information available, it also has made it more difficult to make sure your sources are legitimate.
Credible domains to look for are .gov and.edu, which are domains reserved for national institutions and the government. This does not mean that all .com, .net, and .org domains are unreliable, but anyone with a few bucks can buy a website with these endings. You just need to evaluate these sites more carefully. For more information on top-level domains, click here.
- Is it biased?
Biased sources tend to state opinions instead of concrete facts. They also have few, if any, credible sources backing up their claims. Sometimes, though, biased sources are tricky to spot.
As you examine the website, ask questions like: Is it affiliated with a credible organization such as a university website, or published by a popular tabloid website? Does it references other sources you can check to verify its claims? Is the main purpose of the website to sell you something? For example, let’s say you’re researching Chinese medicine. An article that links to the website’s own miracle supplement is not a credible source.
Also, pay particular attention to the emotion of the article. Does it seem like the writer is trying to persuade you to take action with something (join their organization, sign a petition, etc.)? Although this is not always a bad scenario, sites like these do not belong in your research paper.
If you keep these questions in mind while conducting your research, Mrs. Citey will be impressed—and grateful—when she grades your legit paper.
You can learn even more about evaluating sources for credibility here. And don’t forget the properly formatted citations for your vetted-and-approved sources! For that, there’s EasyBib’s easy citation generator, where you can cite in MLA style, APA, Chicago style format and more.