Friday, March 9, 2007

With So Many Sources to Choose From, What's a Writer to Do?

As a last post for this week where we've talked about sources and how to judge their reliability, we should also mention that even among reliable sources there are varying degrees of credibility. The magazine US Weekly, for instance, might report some accurate information about a star's movie deal, but the same information reported in The New York Times will carry more weight when used as a source in an academic paper. This may not be right. It may not be fair.

But usually it is. Certain publications have greater demands for accuracy than others, and therefore greater credibility. Even if in an individual instance there's no difference in the information between two sources, US Weekly probably reports more not-quite-true stuff in its pages than The New York Times does.

So some things to think about:

There is a huge variety of types of sources: book, periodical, scholarly journal, magazine, broadcast, visual, electronic media, etc.

It may seem obvious, but you should ask yourself what type of source it is. Is it print, electronic, or visual media? Defining the source may help determine its credibility. Where did you find it – at the library, in a bookstore, on television, in a museum, or on the Internet? Maybe you want to use a visual or audio source, such as a film, a painting, or a recording (symphony, song). As every source is different, remember to research the source itself.

For instance, if you use a journal, periodical, or a magazine, determine if the journal or periodical is scholarly, academic, or simply a mainstream, popular culture magazine. As we noted, there exist various levels of complexity and clarity in conveyance of ideas and information. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) differs greatly from People Magazine.

There aren't hard and fast rules--you may, in certain situations, be able to use People Magazine as a source of information. But there are sound guidelines and problems to be aware of when doing research for an academic paper, and it's good to keep them in mind.

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