Tips on Identifying a Credible Source

Students post thousands of questions with sources every week on Packback. Not only do the sources strengthen arguments, but they also serve as a fact-checking tool and provide context for rich conversations. Unfortunately, not all sources are reliable and using an inaccurate source can undermine any argument. So what makes a source credible?

Students often hear advice like “Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source” and “stay away from blogs”, but what about the endless articles and research papers that are only a Google search away? Here are a few tips to help find a source that will add value to any discussion.

Types of Sources:

There are two main types of sources; primary and secondary. Primary sources share information conducted through interviews or experiments or are first-hand accounts such as letters or journal entries. Primary sources are helpful for presenting information in an authoritative way. Secondary sources interpret or analyze a primary source, such as a biography or review. Secondary sources are great for supporting original ideas with expert insights.

Where are the best places to find credible primary and secondary sources?

  • Scholarly databases. A scholarly database is a collection of research papers which are often peer-reviewed by other scholars. Some popular options include Google Scholar, LexisNexis and EBSCO.
  • Reputable newspapers and magazines. Instead of browsing a topic through a general Google search, click on the “news” tab to find recently published articles on the subject. Stick to newspapers or magazines with a national circulation such as The New York Times or Forbes.

Once a source has been found, there are still a few key components to check:

  • Author: If there is no author or publisher, the source may not be reliable. If an author’s name is present, perform a Google search to identify their credentials and determine if they’re an expert on the topic at hand. Look for authors who have written multiple works or who have had their work referenced by other sources. If there is a publisher, be aware of any affiliations or sponsors that may influence the piece.
  • Date: New discoveries are always being made, so find the most current works, even for historical topics. For a primary source, make sure the date correlates with the topic. For a secondary source, look for original publication dates and revision dates to determine how recent the source is.
  • Content Quality: Consider the purpose of a source. The content should go beyond general knowledge and should be presenting information in a neutral, unbiased form. Opinion pieces can provide great information, but be conscious of any skewed ideas or overstated opinions presented as fact. Also, avoid anything with grammatical errors.
  • Sources: Look for sources that have a work cited page, bibliography or that reference outside sources. These are also good places to look for other credible sources.
  • Domain: Quality sources can be found on .com and .net websites, but focus on websites ending in .edu, .gov and .mil. These domains require specific registration qualifications and are only available to legitimate education, government and military organizations or personnel.

Finding and evaluating sources are two important steps for starting a great discussion! For more information on identifying a reliable source, check out these resources from California State University and Purdue Online Writing Lab.