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Research Essay Workshop: Skipping Inaccurate Sources

This is my latest post on finding valid sources for undergraduate research essays. I’ve had a lot of experience with this over the years, as I’ve been teaching university courses and assigning essays since 2011. Sometimes it’s good to very carefully look at a source and decide how you should use it in your essay.

But sometimes it’s better to just read a little bit of a source and skip it if you think it probably won’t work for your paper. One way to do this is to look for signs of bias. But it’s also good to keep an eye out for sources that may not be prejudiced, but are just wrong. Below, I have listed some signs that a source probably isn’t factually accurate:

4 signs that a source has misinformation

1) It states things that seem difficult to believe.

A while back, a student of mine was writing about unfair court decisions. She used an article about a man who successfully sued his wife for having ugly children. Seems pretty hard to believe—but if the article is true, it’s a really good example of an unfair judgement. It’s not true though, and my student could have easily checked this by searching for keywords from the article along with the keyword “hoax”. (A “hoax” is false information that has been published or announced.) If you find some information that seems “wrong” or a story that seems extremely unusual, quickly “hoax-check” it. Or simply skip it and move on to your next reading.

2) It states things that very few people regard as true.

Some information isn’t difficult to believe—it’s simply not believed by most people. For example, most people do not believe that life on earth originally came from an alien spaceship. But some people do. This and other not-so-common theories about academic subjects could be true. But without any concrete evidence or scientific consensus, these theories are simply unimportant and don’t accurately describe accepted facts. So you’ll want to skip sources that support “controversial” theories about the subject of your essay.

3) It contains a lot of typos.

If you are looking at a website, book, or other published material that’s full of little mistakes, you probably can’t trust it. If an author can’t get their grammar, spelling, or punctuation right, what other mistakes may they be making? The odds are pretty good that they’re getting some of their facts wrong as well.

4) Its tone is very informal.

Many publications and websites, including Magoosh, try to take a conversational tone. Sentence structure and wording may not be strictly academic. But some writings take this even further. A source may be full of phonetically spelled language and slang words, words like “wanna,” “gotcha,” “ain’t,” and so on. You may also see lots of “text speak,” the kinds of words you see in cell phone text messages (LOL, IDK, ur, etc…) This is often a sign that the writer is not taking the information in the article seriously, and is probably not trying all that hard to be accurate. Pass these informal writings over and look for something with a more clearly informational tone.

 

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