Vetting your academic sources is essential. Your academic research depends on you picking sound articles and books to critique and draw upon. If you choose the wrong sources, you run the risk of your entire article being distrusted and thrown out. Using structurally sound articles is even more critical when you are writing for an audience that's wider than your classroom like at a conference or in a small journal. You want to make sure that your research reflects the time and energy you spent writing your paper.
Today we are going to look at seven things you can look at when you are vetting your academic sources.
As a note: Use your best judgment. Whenever I looked for sources in college and graduate school, I never had to look super hard. Some of these you should look at by default, but you may not have to go so deep. If something doesn't seem quite right, go through more of these steps until you are satisfied that you are using a good source.
1. How Old Is Your Source?
Most disciplines have evolved a lot over the years. The things that people published even 50 years ago could be a disgrace to your discipline today. Old sources aren't automatically bad, but there could be much better sources out there for you to use.
When I wrote my thesis in college, I started with newer sources for my topic: the education of tolerance (where I talked about how people with more education tend to be more tolerant of those with lifestyles that differed from theirs.) Through my research on this topic, I eventually came across a pivotal book on this topic by Samuel A. Stouffer called Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties. This book was initially published in 1955, and it was where a lot of the initial sociological research on tolerance and education started.
Instead of starting with an old source, I let my research guide me. Eventually, if a source is important enough, I will notice it while I am conducting my research and look for it.
2. Who Wrote Your Source?
Your author's integrity is so important, and so is their educational background. If possible, find someone who is writing with a PhD. Don't use someone's Master's thesis as the basis for your research project! Chances are it's not peer-reviewed or published in any important journals.
Most sites have access to theses, but you can usually filter them out using the site's settings. Filter out all thesis projects so you can make sure that your author is reputable.
You may want to see if you can find other work your author has published. See what else their name is on and what journals they have been published in.
3. Who Paid For Your Source?
Research is not cheap. Often authors team up with think tanks and nonprofit organizations to fund their research. You shouldn't automatically suspect that a source is biased just because it is funded! I have personally worked on funded research before and the act of being funded doesn't make it bias automatically.
On the other hand, if you see a study that says the stock market is going to crash in 2020 and it's funded by the Make The Stock Market Crash In 2020 Foundation, you should probably be wary of what they say.
If research is funded, it has to be disclosed in your source's article or book. There is a catchphrase from the movie All The President's Men, that tells you to “follow the money.” This is such a true statement when it comes to seemingly biased research.
Remember, not all “research” is as scientific as it seems. Make sure that you aren't falling for those kinds of scams and schemes by citing research that is subpar in your paper.
4. Is The Publisher Trusted?
Where are you getting your information from? Journals and publishing companies matter in the academic world. Some journals and book companies will publish almost anything with minimal vetting. You may want to consider a journal's impact factor when decided which journals to trust. Your professor may be able to point you in the direction of some trustworthy journals in your discipline if you don't know them already.
Not all book publishing companies operate the same way either. Some will require much more editing and review before pushing an academic book. Make sure the publisher does their due diligence.
When you are looking at online sources, where is the information coming from? As far as websites are concerned Wikipedia is not a source, and .gov websites are more trustworthy than .com websites.
5. Is The Source Peer-Reviewed?
The peer review process is crucial. During this process, people in the author's field read through the article and give their best guidance as to updates that need to happen in the draft. This process is not perfect, but it's great for weeding out weak research. Once your research is in the hands of random people in your field, they will tell you if it's a legit piece or not.
Make sure that you check the box in your research database to make sure you see peer-reviewed content. It only takes a few seconds, and it will considerably shrink your search results in the best way possible.
6. Does The Source Seem Well-Researched?
The length of a works cited page doesn't always tell the complete picture, but you also shouldn't trust a 20-page paper with five sources by default. Check out the author's works cited page, what sources are they using? Do their sources seem reliable?
How are they blending sources? Do you see any chunks where they are citing multiple authors for one point? This is good because it means that they were able to pull themes from numerous texts. You want your author to be able to reach across various articles to pull out a summary of the most important points.
What types of sources are they using? Are they using sources from quality journals in their discipline? Are they using quality books and websites? Check this information, because if their research is sound, your research will be sound.
7. Is The Source Well Cited?
Last, but not least, are other people citing their article? Now, if the article or book you are using is recently published, you won't be able to use this method to vet your source. If it's an older source, do this: go to Google Scholar, find your article (or potential articles), and see how many articles cited it. You can also look up books in this system.
As you can see by the picture below, these higher education articles were cited by a lot of people. This is good because if other people trusted the articles, you should be able to trust them too.
Gathering great sources is key to having an excellent research paper. You should never skimp on collecting the best sources for your paper. When you do this, your papers can take you further than you ever imagined! Professors love to see that you put in the work necessary for a stellar paper so your good sources could lead to publications, conferences, and so much more!