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Evaluating the Qualifications of a Source
Whenever I read an article and see Wikipedia listed as a sourceóor often, the only sourceóI know Iím dealing with someone who does not know how to do research. Itís critical, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, to know what counts as a resource, and when a specific resource counts. A resource that is good in one situation is not always a valid one for another situation.
First, letís deal with the Wikipedia situation, since it is the most common mistake made by younger writers who were raised on the Internet. Is Wikipedia evil? No, of course not. I use it myself, but as a starting point. If I need to know who someone is, I look him up in Wikipedia. And then, I use what I learn to find sources considered more valid. The resource list on Wikipedia articles is very helpful for this, and so is the explanation of related issues.
What makes Wikipedia a less desirable source? Itís because of the same reason that makes it specialóanyone can edit it. Valid resources are those with qualified writers behind them, and we donít know who wrote what is in a Wikipedia article. This means we also donít know their qualifications or biases.
Most publishers are not young, and so, when you list your sources in a manuscript, they want to see offline sources exclusively or at least mixed into the list. The older the editors, the more likely they are to trust books from traditional publishers, interviews, and museums over websites. Unless you know who is reading your manuscript, be safe and use traditional sources.
Carefully evaluate the credentials of your sources. What is the educational background? If the writer doesnít have a doctorate in the subject, does he have employment or personal experience that would validate his knowledge? Is he a respected writer known for his research? While I am the first to celebrate independent scholars, I also know most editors arenít adventurous in that respect.
Imagine for a moment you are trying to find out if the president of Mars is a supporter of democracy. You find six articles on the subject, and all of them disagree. The articles are by:
1. A high school student
2. A professor at Green Cheese University, the most prestigious on Mars
3. A professor at Harvard University here on earth
4. Someone youíve never heard of, but who lists as his credentials four personal websites on drier lint.
5. Someone youíve never heard of, but who quotes the four people you know to be considered top authorities on the subject.
6. Someone who worked closely with the president for fifteen years.
Who are you likely to consider worth listening to? Now, the high school student might be brilliant and know more than anyone else on this subject, but nothing in his article, found on his website, suggests this was anything more than his term paper. So you donít really know if he knows what heís talking about. The professors both come from prestigious universities and therefore, should know how to do valid research. They are a good possibility, depending on their bias, which weíll discuss next week. The drier lint expertÖwell, somehow itís hard to take him seriously unless you learn he has other credentials he neglected to mention. The person who quoted respectable sources, even though heís unknown, clearly worked long enough to know what sources were valid, so he is a possibility. (He could be you in the future.) Finally, the person who worked with the president is a strong possibility, since he observed the subject first-hand, but again, youíll want to check his biases.
You can see credentials matter when youíre writing. If you donít have them yourself, you need to know how to get them second-hand, by interviewing or studying those who do. The sources must have academic training, respected publishing histories in the field, or personal experience (such as a homeschooling parent interviewed for an article on homeschooling) to be considered valid by most publishers and editors.
If youíre working on a researched article now, stop and identify five reliable sources you can utilize, and write what makes them reliable. This is a critical skill for any writer.
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