Some Notes about Reliability of Sources

I’ll note that what follows is adapted, lightly, from some old Canvas notes from back when I had students. Perhaps some will find this useful…

Critical thinking–and the reading and writing that proceed from and influence it–demands that the sources used to create arguments be interrogated and assessed. That is, they should not be accepted blindly for what they say, but should be made to account for themselves and their utility. How they are assessed will depend, of course, on how they are to be used–and the same source can be used for different purposes in different situations. What follows offers a few reasonably basic observations about the matter.

To ease navigation, the following:

Subjects of interrogation…
Photo by Pixabay on

Types of Sources

One way of classifying sources is in terms of their proximity to what is being discussed. One system for such classification breaks sources into three grades of proximity: primary, secondary, and tertiary/critical.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are the things being discussed. For a paper talking about Malory’s Sir Kay, for example, the primary source would be Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. For a paper talking about Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the movie itself would be the primary source. For one talking about legislation meant to determine curricular standards, the text of the proposed law would be the primary source. And any number of other examples could be found.

Primary sourcing is vital to research, of course; it is the thing being studied, about which new knowledge is being made. As such, it must always be included in the work being done–although it should not be accepted blindly as correct. The questions that apply most especially to secondary sources, discussed below, also apply to primary sources, if not so much; secondary sources can be rejected, but primary sources must be grappled with.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are those things that discuss the primary sources. Published studies of those sources are the most common examples, as Sayers (2007) would be for Sir Kay, for example.

Secondary sourcing is also important to research, although, as the name implies, not to the extent of primary sourcing; as noted above, any individual secondary source may be accepted for inclusion in a piece of research or rejected from it. If accepted, a secondary source will typically be used

  1. To provide context in which the argument is to be made (i.e., “Many others have studied such phenomena. For example, Author (Date) asserts that Æ. Additionally, Other Author (Date) notes that Д);
  2. To bolster the claims made about the primary source (i.e., “Author (Date) agrees, noting Þ”);
  3. To provide a counter-claim against which argument can be made (i.e., “Not all agree. For example, Author (Date) contends that Ƿ”), also called a counter-argument;
  4. Or to rebut such a counter-claim (i.e., “Author’s (Date) work is not agreed upon. For example, Other Author (Date) contends Ȝ”), also called a rebuttal.

That is, secondary sourcing need not agree with the claim the research means to support; there are other, entirely legitimate reasons to include it within the structure of the argument. Context is helpful to situate understanding, independent of other concerns, and counter-argument helps develop ethos by demonstrating not only broader understanding of the current state of knowledge in the field (needed if the research is to generate new knowledge), but also to bear out the notion that the writer has considered other alternatives. Rebuttal then becomes necessary to clear out cognitive space in which to construct the argument.

Tertiary/Critical Sources

Just as it is not the case that all sources in a piece of research must agree upon the central claim being made, it is not the case that all sources referenced bear in directly upon the question addressed in the research. For example, secondary sources can be deployed that treat similar topics to that being handled in the individual piece of research, facilitating argument by analogy. More to the point, however, some works that are referenced serve as guideposts for that research, outlining approaches to take and philosophical stances from which to take them. Such works can be referred to as tertiary or critical sources.

An example of such a piece for Malory’s Sir Kay might be found in Fredal (2011). His piece does not directly engage with Kay, or with Arthuriana at all, but it does offer a useful rubric of measurement–and that rubric might then be applied to how Kay acts in Malory. (I did this, in fact, at a 2016 conference.)

One of the things that tertiary sourcing does is help writers to contextualize their work within the greater gathering of human knowledge–and that is a vitally important concern, one that helps to mark out a writer as a serious scholar or on the way to becoming one. It also helps readers to understand the work more fully, which is a good thing, as well as to develop ethos further by demonstrating again a broader consideration on the writer’s part.

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Yeah, I had a lot to say about this guy…
Image is “Sir Kay breaketh his sword at ye Tournament”
from Howard Pyle’s 1903 The Story of King Arthur and His Knights via Wikipedia, here, and I’m given to understand it counts as public domain.

Questions to Ask of Sources

Whatever the type of source, though, it should not be accepted uncritically. That is, it should have questions asked of it that go beyond “What is it saying?” and “How is it saying it?” Such questions get at the biases in the source–and there are always biases in the source–as well as its limitations, both of which are needed to understand how and if a source should be used. Many of them inhere in the environment of writing in which the piece being assessed exists–as described in other lecture notes.

An initial list of such questions, broken down by those involved in the production of the text, might look like this:

  • Writer
    • What ethos does the writer have? That is, what authority does the writer have to write about the topic being discussed?
    • How open about that ethos–and its limits–is the writer? That is, does the writer announce what authority is possessed, as well as where that authority ends?
    • What else has the writer written, and how reliable is it generally? A history of useful work makes the individual piece being examined more likely to be useful.
    • With whom is the writer associated, financially and personally? That is, who pays the writer, or whom does the writer value, and therefore who might have an ideological bias that influences the writer’s work?
  • Publisher
    • What ethos does the publisher have? That is, what authority does the publisher have to release materials about the topic being discussed?
    • How open about that ethos–and its limits–is the publisher? That is, does the publisher announce what authority is possessed, as well as where that authority ends?
    • What else has the publisher released, and how reliable is it generally? A history of useful work makes the individual piece being examined more likely to be useful.
    • With whom is the publisher associated, financially and otherwise? That is, who pays the publisher, or whom does the publisher value, and therefore who might have an ideological bias that influences the publisher’s work?
    • What editorial practices are in place? Also, what peer-review practices, if any, are in place? That is, how does the publisher go about assessing work under consideration for publication, and how is the decision made about whether or not to publish it?

Similar questions might well be asked of other major participants in the written environment, such as translators and other gatekeeper readers. They will have biases and influences upon them, and those will necessarily translate into the work in some way.

One other concern needs attention, as well: timeliness. That is, how appropriate is the time of the source being discussed to the topic and the context of discussion? Generally, more recent sources will be more useful than older ones, in that more recent sources have had more opportunity to emerge from the best available information. That said, a certain amount of time for fact-checking needs to happen (which scholarly work typically includes as part of the extended publication cycle). Also, a piece working with earlier attitudes toward a given topic will benefit from using older sources, largely as primary materials, but possibly in other contexts, as well.

It must be noted, finally, that answering such questions satisfactorily only leads to a greater likelihood of accuracy–never total certainty. New information might always emerge that undermines what is known now. Too, as Edmundson (2009) notes, the work done is done by people, and people are prone to error, deliberate and incidental. But that same uncertainty means there is always more to learn, always more to do, and so that there is always use for the work of researchers at all levels and in all fields. And that is a hopeful thing, indeed.

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  • Edmundson, M. (2009). Against readings. Profession, 56-65.
  • Fredal, J. (2011). Rhetoric and bullshit. College English, 73(3), 243-259.
  • Sayers, W. (2007). Kay the Seneschal, Tester of Men: The evolution from archaic function to medieval character. Bibliographical Bulletin of the International Arthurian Society, 59, 375-401.

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