Research is conducted to get at the truth of a subject. As simple as that sounds, you will soon learn that the truth is often very difficult to find!
As a researcher, you will find that every question can have many possible answers and every event will be described differently by witnesses, partly because events are clouded by opinions and viewpoints. You can see evidence of this if you browse through your television news programming.
Look through your news shows and you will find programs with names like "Reliable Sources" and TV channels who make claims to be "Fair and Balanced or "The Most Trusted Name in News." You will also see that any two news organizations will report the very same event in two very different ways.
So where do you find the truth?
You have to develop a critical eye and ferret out the facts for yourself!
A person who has developed critical thinking skills will be able to discern facts from opinions and pick up on small clues that help to determine trustworthiness of sources.
Can You Trust the Source?
It can be helpful to put the topic of trustworthy sources into perspective with an exercise.
Imagine that you are walking down a neighborhood street and you come upon a disturbing scene. A man is lying on the ground with a leg wound and several paramedics and police officers are buzzing around him. A small spectator crowd has gathered, so you approach one of the bystanders to ask what happened.
"This guy was jogging down the street and a big dog came running out and attacked him."
You take a few steps and approach a woman. You ask her what happened.
"This man was trying to rob that house and a dog bit him."
Now you don't know what to believe!
Two different people have given different accounts of an event. To get closer to the truth, you have to find out if either person is connected to the event in any way. You soon discover that the man is a friend of the bite victim. You also realize that the woman is the dog's owner. Now what do you believe? It's probably time to find a third source of information-and one who is not a stakeholder in this scene.
What Is a Stakeholder?
In the scene described above, both the man and the woman providing the reports have a big stake in the outcome of this event. If the police determine that an innocent jogger was attacked by a dog, the dog's owner is subject to fines and further legal trouble.
If the police determine that the apparent jogger was actually involved in illegal and dangerous pursuits at the time he was bitten, the wounded man faces penalty--and the woman is off the hook.
If you were a news reporter, you would have to determine whom to trust by digging deeper and making an assessment about every source of information. You would have to collect details and determine if your many sources were trustworthy, or if they were clouded by distortion. And distortion can stem from many causes:
- Stakeholders' ambitions
- Preconceived beliefs
- Political designs
- Sloppy research
So What Is a Reliable Source?
It is nearly impossible, after an event has occurred, to determine the exactness of every detail. Every recounting of an event involves points of view and opinion to some degree. The best sources will provide a consensus view and identify all information providers. The following statements should help you determine the trustworthiness of your sources:
- Every writer, lecturer, reporter, and teacher has an opinion.
- The most reliable sources are straightforward about how and why they are reporting.
- An Internet article that provides news but does not provide a list of sources is not very trustworthy. (The article you are reading supplies advice as opposed to news.)
- Anybody can publish on the Internet.
- Internet publishers can be dishonest about their identity.
- An Internet article that provides a list of sources for a newsy article is more trustworthy.
- An Internet article that is published by a reputable research organization or a respected professor at a reputable university and provides sources is even more trustworthy.
- Any source is more trustworthy if the author and the publisher are easily identifiable and it is clear that the author and the publisher are not driven by profit.
- Books are generally considered more trustworthy than the Internet because books are stable and unchanging. An online article can be edited at any given moment, while a book is published as a whole at a specific, identifiable time and date.
- Books are generally considered more trustworthy because the author and publisher are clearly stated and they are held responsible. When a book publisher publishes a book, that publisher takes responsibility for its truthfulness.
- News organizations are businesses.
- Cable news, radio shows, and other media sources must make a profit. If you use these as sources, you must consider their many stakeholders and political slants.
- Fiction is made up-so fiction is not a good source of information.
- Movies are fiction. Even movies based on real events are fiction.
- Memoirs and autobiographies are nonfiction-but they contain a single person's point of view and opinions. If you use an autobiography as a source, you must acknowledge that the information is one-sided!
- A nonfiction book that provides a bibliography of sources is more trustworthy than a book that does not.
- A book published by a profit-making company has a stake in the success and the popularity of the book. This profit-making potential can cause a book to be more scandalous and more sensational--and less truthful.
- An article that is published in a scholarly journal is usually scrutinized for accuracy by the publisher. A publisher-especially a university press--has a reputation to protect.
- Some sources are "peer reviewed." These books and articles go before a panel of non-stakeholding professionals for review and assessment. This body of professionals act as a small jury to determine truthfulness. Peer-reviewed articles are very trustworthy.
Scholarly research is a quest for truth. Your job as a researcher is to use the most trustworthy sources to find the most accurate information. Your job also involves using a variety of sources, to reduce the chances that you are relying on tainted, opinion-filled evidence.