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Reliable Research: How to Determine If a Source is Credible & Accurate

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

Learn how to do research that is credible and accurate by evaluating your sources for how relevant the information is, how verifiable the information is, and how unbiased your source is after listening to this lesson on how to do reliable research!

What Goes Into Reliable Research?

Open up a web browser and use a search engine to search for anything. The engine will give hundreds, thousands, or even millions of hits! There is so much information - and misinformation - that is easily available to us. How can we possibly tell which sources are reliable and which sources are not? This lesson will discuss how you can tell what research is reliable and how you can make sure that your research is relevant, verifiable, and as unbiased as possible.

When we are tasked with an assignment that asks us to do research on a topic, it is important that we find research that is actually reliable. We must make sure to have accurate research from credible sources. However, with all the sources that are available, it can be hard to know which information is the freshest, which is the most accurate, and which is just made up.

How do we know what goes into reliable research? This idea of what makes research reliable can be broken into three elements:

  • The research must be relevant
  • The research must be verifiable
  • The research must be unbiased (or at least as unbiased as possible)

Reliable Research Should Be Relevant

Let's say that you are doing research to find out what the biggest cause of car accidents currently is. In your search for information, you find a chart from the U.S. Department of Transportation that gives information on all the car accidents that happened in the country in the year 1999. This information looks great, so you want to add it to your paper! However, the problem with this information is that it is out-of-date. For example, since 1999:

  • Texting and cell phone use has become more widespread.
  • Drug and DUI laws have changed, which may cause people to be more or less cautious about driving under the influence.
  • Safety standards on cars have generally been improved.

This data is not relevant to your topic because it is too old; you want data from the past year or two that takes into account these social changes.

When we do research, we should always make sure that research is relevant - that it directly explains our topic and is up-to-date. What sort of research is relevant changes based on what sort of information that we are looking for. If we want breaking news about events that just happened, the best thing we can do is to look at newspapers, news websites, and news television shows. They tend to be the best at bringing us information about events that have happened in the past couple of weeks.

Sometimes, however, we want to get an idea of the aftermath of the event or the topic; in other words, we want to know what happened after an event or get an idea of how things related to our topic have progressed in the past few weeks, months, or years. For information like that, we should think about academic journals and trade journals, since these are often well-edited and do a good job of looking back at data over the past few months or years to explore a topic. We might also look at magazines, since some magazines that cover science, nature, or news will do articles that research, report on, and discuss events or topics that have been popular or important over the past weeks and months.

For other topics, we may want to get a sense of the history of the topic over the years. To get historical data, books and documentaries do a good job at going back years (or even centuries or millennia) and charting the historical information on our topic. By choosing the right type of source for our topic, we can make sure that we are getting the information we need and not using information that is too out-of-date for our assignments.

Reliable Research Should Be Verifiable

Even if we do get research that seems to be the type of up-to-date research that we need, there is still a chance that the information itself is not reliable. How can we tell which sources are true and accurate? We can make sure that our research is verifiable - that it checks out as true, accurate research - by looking at two things: the author and the source itself.

Why should we look at the author? Well, we can check the author of the sources out to see if he or she is an expert in the subject. We want to make sure that the author has experience, education, or training in the topic. We can find this information in many places. On a book, we can look at the back cover of the book jacket to see if other experts recommend the book, and we can look on the inside flaps and first pages before the book itself begins to see past works the author has done.

For other sources, we might do a quick search on the author to find out information about them. We want to find out what credentials the author has. For example, do they have degrees in their field? Do they have a track record of giving out good information? Have they won any prestigious awards that show that they are doing exceptional work? A quick online search of your authors can often save you from wasting time with poor sources. Just as employers ask to know more about our education and experience when we send in a resume for a job, we should try to know more about the education and experience of our sources.

However, it also may help to check the source itself. In some articles or books, the books give credit to other sources that they have used, whether in the footnotes or directly in the text itself. You may see phrases such as ''In a 2012 poll done by Survey USA...'' or ''In a study done by scientists at Harvard...'' used in sentences that share research or data. This is good! It indicates that the research the author is using is verifiable and is trusted enough to use as a basis for further research.

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