Priyanka recently posted some advice on graduate research. If you are doing grad research now or may want to in the future, I definitely recommend Priyanka’s blog entry.
But even if you’re just an undergrad, it’s important to develop good academic research skills. Writing academic essays as an undergrad is your chance to learn the most important research skill: identifying and gathering valid, proven information. This skill is really the key to all research— whether you are doing your own experiments or just looking for good writings on your subject, universities expect you to find information that is valid. This research skill also helps you develop critical thinking skills, which are very valuable not just in grad school, but also in the workplace… and in life.
What does “valid” mean anyway?
If you just asked yourself that question, don’t feel bad—I have had many of my own university students ask me that over the years. The answer is simple: a source is valid if you can make an intelligent argument that the information in the source can be trusted.
In other words, if someone—such as a professor—doubts that a source for your essay is true, you’ll have to defend your source. So your next question probably is “How do I defend a source if my professor criticizes it?” Read on…
Signs that a source is probably valid
Arguing to defend your choice of sources can seem scary at first. Fortunately, there are several clues that a source may be valid. If your sources have these signs of validity, it will be easy to convince people that your sources are trustworthy. And if your source has enough signs of validity, your professors probably won’t even make you defend it at all.
Here are some of the key signs:
- The source is scholarly, and peer-reviewed. Scholarly, peer reviewed sources are written by one person with an advanced degree, and then confirmed as true by a group of judges who also have similar graduate-level qualifications.There are specific search engines and websites that collect only peer reviewed scholarly writings. For example, ScienceDirect collects peer-reviewed article on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math). And other services such as JSTOR and EBSCOHost provide peer-reviewed articles in pretty much every academic subject.
- The source is professionally edited. This means that a qualified editor or group of editors is paid to review source materials and make sure everything is correct and accurate.For print resources such as magazines and books, this is pretty easy to prove, usually—most print publishers have a paid staff of editors.For online sources, this can be a little trickier. You may need to investigate a website you’re using as a source. Most informational websites have an “About Us” link or a “Careers” link. At those links, you can usually figure out if the staff has—or hires—paid professional editors.
- The source is well-qualified. Do a web search on the author of any article you want to use as a source. Figure out whether or not the author has good knowledge of the subject he or she is writing about. Does the author have a relevant degree or work experience that connects to his or her subject?
- The source cites other good sources. This is an obvious one really. Your professors will judge your paper based on how good your sources are. So when you’re reading something, you should also judge it by its sources. Where does an article get its information? If the article you want to use as a source also uses good sources, you can probably trust it as valid.
- The source is supported by other good sources. Suppose you find an article you really want to use, but the source doesn’t seem to cite any other sources. And you can’t find out anything about the author, or figure out if the article has been peer reviewed or edited. You can still check to see if the information in the source is confirmed in other writings that are peer reviewed, edited, written by well-qualified writers, etc…
Of course, none of these signs of validity are magic. A source could have some or all of the traits listed above, and your professor might still find a reason that the source isn’t valid. But the more signs of validity your source has, the easier it will be for you to defend it. And if you find a source that doesn’t have any of the features I listed above, you probably shouldn’t use it.
In my next post on this subject, we’ll look at how to identify information that is weak or not valid at all. Watch out for this post!