Scientific Sources: Accuracy, Reliability & Validity

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  • 0:01 Using Sources
  • 1:08 Validity of a Source
  • 2:19 Reliability of a Source
  • 3:46 Accuracy of a Source
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

It's important to use other sources to support your work, but what's even more important is to use the right ones. Sources should be valid, reliable, and accurate, but it's not always easy to tell which ones meet these criteria.

Using Sources

Have you heard the saying 'no man is an island?' As a scientist, you'll often feel this way. It's very rare that a single scientist does their work without collaborating with others or building on other established works. Working together allows scientists to share ideas, learn from each other, and produce better results from better-designed experiments. And building on the work of others helps you avoid repeating unnecessary steps or experiments, and can help you better understand the scientific problems you're trying to address.

When you cite and refer to the work of other scientists, it's important to make sure you're using sources that are accurate, reliable, and valid. A source is any work, creator of a piece of work, or publisher of that work. While we would like to think that any scientific source can be used, the reality is that we have to be careful in what sources we choose for a number of reasons.

How can you tell which sources are appropriate and which ones are not? There's an almost overwhelming amount of information available at your fingertips these days, so let's look at some ways you can discern between sources you should and shouldn't be using.

Validity of a Source

If you do a quick search online, you'll come up with a staggering number of journals that are published all over the world. And inside those journals is a ton of good science! The articles that are selected to be published go through a rigorous process, and generally, only the best of the best are chosen to be printed for representation of that publication.

Journals are, of course, not the only source of good information, but they are certainly one of the best. But while these research articles do provide a lot of good information, you'll need to decide which of them are relevant to your problem or hypothesis. Sources like these are valid because they directly relate to your work.

Let's say, for example, that you are researching the effects of temperature on a certain species of cactus. No matter how good they are, you wouldn't want to read and cite sources that deal with the effects of temperature on morning glories or ferns because these plants are so very different from cacti. What would be more relevant, or valid, would be to use some sources that provide information on other species of cacti because these will be most helpful to you and your study.

Reliability of a Source

Okay, so once you've determined that a source is valid, the next step is to determine if the source is reliable. This means that the source can be trusted. The reliability of a source depends a lot on the context. For example, if you find an article that relates to your work, but it is 50 years old, chances are you can find something that was published more recently and is therefore more contextually appropriate. It might be that the older work was reliable when it was published, but it's likely that new information has been discovered since then, and the old article is no longer appropriate for modern use.

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