How to know if a source is “good”

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I received a great question from a rising Senior: “What constitutes a good source in your opinion?”

Here are the highlights of my answer:

Especially for academic research books, is the publisher a reputable university press? Look at the copyright page. Is this book published by Oxford, Penn, Harvard, or Stanford? Great. Smaller university presses may also be ok, but look into it a bit more. Is it a reputable state or non-profit university? Good. Is it a for-profit college? Bad. Is it a clear propaganda / indoctrination machine? Bad. For a couple Senior Thesis books a trade (how-to) or major popular press (Penguin) may be appropriate, but this cannot be the majority of sources.

Is the author an experienced, recognized expert in their field? Check the author’s name in, and check their bio. Are they published in reputable journals? Are they educated in their topic? Do they have relevant work experience? Are they recognized experts in their field? If yes, good. If you can’t find out much about the author, or what you can find seems self-published, that is bad.

What is the motive or bias of the entity funding publishing the information? Consider who funded the decades of “research” that said cigarettes were safe – tobacco companies. Research, peer review, writing, editing, and sharing information is expensive, and so there is no such thing as information that is not influenced by money. What is the motive of the money provided for a particular publication? If it is to sell a product, or maintain a power stranglehold, that is bad. If it is the pursuit of data, facts, knowledge, and possibly truth, that is good. This is difficult to discern because nobody will ever say “I am using this information to trick people out of their power and money” – you have to be like a detective and follow the money to see for yourself.

Consider the date of publication – does the source likely have the most recent data? Some fields change faster than others. You want to make sure you are working with material that is up-to-date.

Fundamentally, a good source is one that does not have a financial or power motive to deviate from a balanced, complete analysis of the facts. The greater the motive to skew the interpretation of the data, the less reliable the source. What makes it tricky is that research is not free, and neither is peer review, so money and power are always involved with information.

That’s why it is so important to have multiple sources that come together to form evidence – one source alone is never sufficient to be “good”.

Do you have questions or analysis about your particular sources that you would like to share with Ms. Farris? Email anytime!

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