How many times have you found yourself asking this question, after a frantic Google search to find something (anything!) relevant to your essay? by Kate Courage
You finally find a result that looks like it might hold the key to answering the question. However, the website it is from isn’t one you recognise, and you don’t know the author. So, here’s the big question: Can you include it and get away with it…?
As librarians, we spend a lot of time helping students who want to reference a web source that turns out to be of dubious academic value. You can save yourself, and us (!) the time and effort of trying to trace that same idea in an academic source, by asking these 4 simple questions:
- Who is the author?
It doesn’t matter that you don’t recognise the author’s name (you almost certainly won’t know all academics in your field yet). However, the question of who wrote the piece will be central to deciding whether or not to read and include it. Here is where Google is brilliant! Search for the author and see whether they have any appropriate academic affiliations and credentials. I say appropriate, having helped a student who was referencing a physics professor, writing a blog on Jane Austen! I had to suggest that there might be better authorities on that particular subject.
General rule – if there is no attributed author, don’t even think about it!
- Does the author reference his/her sources?
Just as you are expected to cite and accurately reference all of your sources, the same applies to academics writing and publishing scholarly works. Anyone writing without acknowledging their sources and influences is either giving purely subjective opinions, or is plagiarising like mad! Either way, not a source you want to be using.
- Who is it written for?
This can sometimes be harder to pin-point, but the kind of language used is often a give-away. Are they using the kinds of scholarly terms you are used to from your lectures and reading list texts, or is it informal and chatty? Many academics have the enviable knack of making their writing accessible and readable, but they will generally still use much of the language and terminology associated with the academic discipline.
- Is it peer-reviewed?
For anyone unsure of this term, peer-review is the process where academic writing is checked and reviewed by academic peers, before it is unleashed on unsuspecting readers. This typically only applies to the high quality published journals, and scholarly books or edited collections, so much of the information freely available on the web won’t pass this test. Peer-review is an important part of academic publishing, so it is generally better to base your arguments around sources that have been subjected to this rigorous process.
If you are struggling to find the kind of information that passes this test, bear in mind that the Library’s databases will contain a far higher percentage of scholarly content than Google does. Starting your searches there could save you a lot of time and make the research process much calmer! Learn more about how databases can transform your assignments.
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