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    A Source, a Source, My Kingdom for a Source

    One of the biggest issues I run into when editing is when authors use questionable sources to back themselves up. The most common example of this is when Wikipedia is cited as a source.

    You might say, "Wait a second! Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It says so right there in its description!" Indeed, the websitedescribes itself as, "The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." It's in the second part of the description that you find the biggest problem. Anyone with any bias, expertise (or lack thereof in many cases), or malicious intent can edit an article on Wikipedia. Even Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, has acknowledged that the site is not a good source for academic research.

    Now don't get me wrong, I use Wikipedia at times when I'm trying to look up the premise of a movie or general trivia. It is useful for that or for getting a general idea of how something happened. However, the site has several limitations that make it very unsuitable for a reputable source in a book or article, especially an academic one (e.g., a thesis). For example:

    • As I mentioned before, anyone can edit Wikipedia's entries, which means they can be tampered with, and the information can be quite inaccurate. There have been several cases where people, whether to be funny or malicious , inserted false information into Wikipedia entries, such as back in 2009 when someone reported that Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd had died.
    • The site lacks a peer-review process, which is very important for to ensure accuracy and adherence to scholarly standards.
    • The site is frequently updated and changed, which means the article you cite in your book is likely to be radically different once the book has been published.

    You might be wondering, "What is a good source?" Well, they are plentiful, but you might have to put a little more effort into your research. Some examples of good sources are:

    • Good, old-fashioned books written by reputable authors. Yes, I know books are not as popular and easy to access as the Internet, but they are by far the best place to look for reliable information. Schelpping down to your local library might seem like a chore, but the dividends will be worth it.
    • Scholarly articles from well-known journals. The best place to go for these are libraries. The articles in these journals undergo a strict peer-review process that ensures they are accurate, reliable, and in the same vein as other research in the field.
    • Reputable websites. These are okay to use, as long as they are from well-known sources such as CNN, the Washington Post, etc. Keep in mind, however, that the Internet changes rapidly, so a source that is in print and won't change is still best.

    These are just a few examples of ways to keep your research reputable. A skilled editor can help flag research that may be questionable so your book or paper is the best it can possibly be.

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    Reader Comments (1)

    As a former teacher, I cannot agree more. Trying to explain to students what qualified as a source and why I wouldn't allow wikipedia was a constant headache.

    November 9, 2010 | Sarah

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