“How is it an inadequate source?” I growled indignantly at my essays comments. There, marring my ‘painstakingly’ researched bibliography were two pencil strikes through a main source. I was embarrassed and did not understand that a book from the university library could be an insufficient source. I hardly remember the topic of that second year undergraduate essay, but I remember the crossed out citation. I also remember the amount of time I spent verifying the credibility of my research, acting on the classic history mantra: “check your source, then check it again.”
Evaluating a piece of information’s validity is an essential Twenty-First Century skill with society simultaneously experiencing an information age and rise in anti-intellectualism. Google searches produce hordes of pieces written by pseudo-professionals doling out medical advice, commentary on international affairs, and capitalizing on historical conspiracy theories, like the TV series, Hunting Hitler. These opinions are increasingly accepted as factual, while analysis by credible scholars and field experts is denounced as “fake news” or “results of indoctrination.” Aside from the fundamental difference in education and experience between the parties, professionals submit their work to a rigorous six-month “peer-review” prior to publication. The process involves several industry experts to edit and fact-check the work. Since spending months determining if a 500-word report of the latest American upset on Twitter is reliable, here are some guiding principles to gauge a source’s credibility.
A source’s worth often begins at its origins. Authors in various disciplines are accused of manipulating information to serve their needs, a dangerous practice considering their influence on both macro-and-micro level society. The accusation is not unfounded, despite ardent attempts individuals are unable to completely eradicate their bais and will bring their personal, educational, and professional experiences into their writing. Ultimately, the goal is not to determine if the writer is bias but the extent. An author’s reputation and educational background are strong indicators of their work’s validity. Preferably, they would hold a degree, if not multiples, have advanced years of experience, or be known for their work on the topic.
As a historian, I specialize in memory and military history focusing on the contemporary era, thus I have no business writing a how-to surgery guide and people would be ill-advised to follow it. Professional surgeons spend over a decade gaining the knowledge and experience necessary to perform a successful transplant, I’ve played Operation and did not play it well. Yet, the rise of For-Profit Colleges and scams offering degrees boasting training people did not receive, a scholar’s reputation is another important consideration. Deborah Lipstadt’s books about the Holocaust are more reliable than those of David Irving despite both calling themselves ‘historians.’ This is one of the reasons small biographies of writers are attached to any publication, but for additional details searching the author online is useful.
Another test is to examine the bibliography or works cited page, depending on the discipline. This test might not apply to newspapers, blogs, or some magazines, but a bibliography is a helpful tool for establishing the pedigree of a publication. It should be well-researched, not lack primary materials (including original data or documents) and be absent of”red-flag” items that make you question its reliability. For non-bibliography works, turn to the publisher.
Like the reputation of the author, a publisher can indicate the work’s potential theoretical or political framework. In Canada, The Toronto Star favours a liberal perspective overall, while the National Post leans closer to the political right. Consequently, each paper presents a different view on the same event, making it beneficial to read both to comprehend the story holistically. Meanwhile, a journal has higher quality standards than some other publications, particularly those that adhere to the peer-review process. TEDTalks present more reliable information than vlogs, because the speakers are screened before speaking on a TED stage, vloggers may only be answerable to themselves or their brands. The discrepancy does not mean we should stop browsing the various material (I am an avid vlog watcher) but to be conscious of the presented information’s leaning.
Alongside the publisher, an article’s currency–its publication year–is key to determining the value of the analysis presented. The general rule is that for materials more than ten years old (with the exemption of primary documents), it verified by a recent source or discarded. External influences surrounding the publication year greatly impact their content. Articles detailing Canada’s military identity from the “Dark Nineties” are vastly different from those during the ten-year Armed Forces operation in Afghanistan. Opinions expressed during the First World War have little resemblance to the ones voiced during the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War. Since early history writing has been a method for humanity to understand its reality, but again humans are fallible and made by their experiences.
Finally, maintain a reasonable skepticism. My granny’s catchphrase was “take it with a grain of salt”, be skeptical of things and do not accept them at face-value. Informational resources should say where to look but not what to see, in the end, viewpoints form through the acquisition of knowledge but if only one version of opinions is accepted without consulting the otherside, individuals cannot develop a sound worldview. My professors exemplify the practice of showing where to look but not what to see, from reading Marx’s Capital alongside Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, to discussing conclusions with classmates helped me shape my worldview. It gave me the opportunities to confront and defend that view, it gave me ownership over them.
Ideas are powerful, they have the ability to facilitate positive or negative change and they carry on into successive generations. Those descendants will evaluate us, our writings, our views, even our Twitters, but will they deem it sound?
Desarée Rosskopf is the Associate Editor of Kazingram Dialogue. She received her Master of Arts in History from Western University and a BA Honours in History from Tyndale University College. She specializes in contemporary military history as well as collective memory and mythmaking. She is currently researching the legacy of Canada’s Normandy landing from 1944-2017 as a Fellow for the Juno Beach Centre in France. @DesareeRosskopf