In this third installment of our series on the anatomy of an essay (we've come a long way since Robert Burton's Anatonmie of Melancholie!), I will discuss how to evaluate the quality of a particular resource. The proliferation of the internet has certainly made information more accessible, but ease of accessibility also makes it more difficult to determine which sources are the most credible. A credible source makes your argument more credible as well.
As you may have learned from a few of my recent posts about writing lab, a second reader tends to improve the quality of your work. The same is true in the publishing world. Any resource that has been reviewed by one or more experts (peers) in a particular field is considered the highest quality or most credible. Some of the most credible sources are:
Scholarly Journal Articles
News Magazine Articles
Expert Testimony (like in court)
Sources are considered less credible when they are not reviewed by an editor, publisher, or expert in the field. Does this mean you cannot use these resources at all? Absolutely not. This just means that you should be even more suspicious about how well the author has grounded his or her arguments (empirical research, logic, other expert opinions). Some less credible resources include:
Subjective Reports (the author fails to deliver both sides of the argument)
Wikipedia (great place to start your research but doesn't belong in
your final works cited page)
Of course this list is subjective as well (this is a blog too you know), and it may not be directly applicable to all types of writing. But if you are looking to write an argumentative essay, founded on factual research and logical argument, you should definitely make every effort to establish the credibility of your resources.
Hints and Caveats
* Age matters: some resources get better with age, and some do not. Some of the best thinking about Homer's Iliad was published in the 1920s. However, the same is not true for rocket scientists.
* Expertise matters: some people just have better and more insightful things to say about a subject than others. Do some research to find out who is the most widely regarded expert in your particular field. Read that person first.
* Conciseness matters: why read 300 pages of rambling musings on a subject when you can read 30? Just because a book or resource is longer, does not mean it is automatically better. Look for the resources that develop a clear argument within a manageable amount of space.
Happy researching, and keep the comments coming.