So your professor has assigned a research paper (or, really, any sort of assignment that depends on information gleaned from outside sources, rather than your own opinion). You’ve been told you must use legitimate sources—something that will survive close scrutiny, that will provide useful and accurate information or an educated opinion. There should be nothing off-the-wall and certainly nothing that could be edited or published by just any average Joe with a keyboard and wifi (lookin’ at you, Wikipedia). Well, with a World Wide Web full of cute cat videos, strange how-to tutorials, and the odd scholarly article thrown into the mix, this can be rather difficult territory to navigate.
So, how do we know what a legitimate source is? Where do we look for these sources? And how might we detect a well-polished phony from the real deal?
Our first, and most foolproof, step: The easiest way to ensure you’re finding the best of the best articles, books, et cetera, is to use the databases provided by Delta College. These can be accessed by going to Delta’s homepage, finding the Quicklinks menu at the top of the page and scrolling to “Library Learning Information Center.” Select this option. A new page should appear. From there, review the left-hand side panel until you read *“Journals and Magazines,” “Newspapers,” or even “Government Documents” (if you need that sort of thing). Choosing one of these categories will lead you to a database where you can search for sources.
*“Journals and Magazines” is probably the most used section—it will even give you excerpts from books and other mediums of publication. You can narrow your search for a certain kind of article or topic in “Advanced Search.” I recommend using InfoTrac, EBSCO, or CINHAL Plus databases.
Articles found by using this method will typically be peer-reviewed (you can search for only peer-reviewed articles by checking a box in “Advanced Search”) or will at least be written by an author with a well-formed and educated opinion.
Which brings us to our next step: Looking up an author’s credentials.
About the Author
Because you are not limited to only using these online databases, this step can come in handy. It’s perfectly okay to Google a topic for online articles or blogs. Sometimes a professor’s assignment guidelines will even require a source or two from the Internet. However, this is when it’s most important that we are checking out our sources for legitimacy. An easy way to do that? Research the author. Try to dig up some information on the author. Is he or she a research professor at a known university publishing their work online? Has he or she worked in the specific field in which you are researching? Has he or she published other works on a similar topic, or is the work a combined effort of a number of different people? Any of this information can be helpful in determining if a source is reliable enough to use in an academic paper.
Also in regards to using a source from the Internet—simply looking at where the source is published can give you an idea if the article will be right for you or not. Anything published under a .com address should be double checked—either by looking up the author, as we mentioned above, looking into other places where the article may have been published, or checking out the legitimacy of the website. (For example, something such as ConspiracyTheory.com will likely have very biased or inaccurate information.) Information published under .gov or .org is typically credible. Any site associated with reputable institutions, such as well-known universities, credible media outlets, a specific government program or department, or respected non-governmental organizations, can provide useful sources.
Something else to consider: How recently was an article published? Sometimes students don’t realize they are dealing with outdated information. For example, let’s say we’re doing research on the planets in our solar system. Well, heartbreakingly enough, Pluto is no longer considered a planet. So if we are using information dated before Pluto was kicked out of the prestigious Planet Club, we should at least be aware of it. In this case, it wouldn’t affect the other information you’re looking for (on other planets), but for some topics, old information could really harm your paper.
This about wraps up how to determine if a source is credible or not. There are, of course, many methods to go about looking for reliable information—the above is merely the simplest way possible in a condensed and readable format. For other tips on researching, visit these Delta College pages provided under the “Library Learning Information Center” tab on Delta’s website: