Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

Assessing Source Quality

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Especially if you are surfing the web, your research process should commence with a quality check of any sources you plan to use. Many writers begin badly in this area, simply typing, say, "genetics" into a search engine and getting a return of over 90,000 hits. The likely result is an arbitrary research process, yielding sources vastly varying in quality. The first step when writing a research paper should always be narrowing your focus and choosing quality sources to fit the circumstances.

To run a quality check on your sources, follow these guidelines:

  • Begin by discerning the expected quality of resources in relation to the paper you are writing. Read carefully any material supplied by the professor regarding the assignment. Typically, you will be told if your paper should favor primary sources (original evidence provided by participants) or secondary sources (interpretations of primary sources by authors). Specific sources might be suggested to you, and parameters for using internet resources might also be discussed.
  • Assess the author’s credibility and bias. This could be established by your finding out and providing efficient biographical information on the author, and interpreting the author’s agenda through the tone of the text, the kinds of examples provided, and the level of audience to whom the author is writing.
  • Note whether the author has any professional affiliation, and how this affiliation connects to the author’s work. Especially with websites, where an organization might be considered the author, the question of affiliation and professional status becomes especially important. The most credible resources often have ties to professional organizations with standards for membership, for instance. The most credible web pages are often affiliated with a professional sponsoring organization. And we should expect different commentary on the same incident by, say, a chemical plant representative as opposed to a spokesperson from the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Assess the level of information and interpretation the source provides. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other information-based resources are perfectly good for attaining or verifying dates and facts, but keep in mind that the information provided may be viewed as elementary by your readers, and typically little if any authorial interpretation is provided in such sources.
  • Carefully consider the sources cited by your sources. This not only gives you a potential reading list, it helps you determine the quality of your sources’ research. Are the cited sources primary or secondary? encyclopedia or journal articles? biased or objective?
  • For both print and web resources, look for clear indicators of quality in both form and content. Are you using a cheaply produced brochure by an organization interested in self-promotion and fundraising, or a book published by a government agency or established press? Is the material written with grace and clarity, organized effectively, and professional in appearance, or is the writing style embarrassing, the organization haphazard, the text awash in typos?
  • Note how current the information is, especially if the material comes from the web. In this regard, the internet is sometimes superior to the print medium, in that information might be published either exclusively or first on the web. However, also assess whether the source of information is outdated, or should be compared to information from a different time or a different medium.

Self-Study

For more information on assessing source quality, especially of internet resources, turn to these sites:

"Evaluating Information Found on the Internet" article from Johns Hopkins University

"Research Using the Internet" advice from the University of Toronto