A legitimate source is one that is what it purports to be, and a reliable source is one that can be trusted to have valid or accurate information. Some sources are both legitimate and reliable, and some are neither, but some can be one or the other.
For instance, a Wikipedia page is probably legitimate because it is what it says it is: it claims to be a crowd-sourced encyclopedia, and it is. The information in it may or may not be fully reliable, but that is different from being a legitimate source. The American Journal of Psychology is reliable because it is peer-reviewed, meaning that other professionals evaluate and check an article before it is published. It is also legitimate in that it presents itself as a scholarly journal, and it is.
Finding a legitimate and reliable source requires your own judgment and critical thinking skills, for there is no definitive test for legitimate and reliable sources. The closest objective test is to discover whether a source is peer-reviewed, but that is no substitute for your own critical thinking, and that doesn’t apply to many sources that are still legitimate and reliable.
Questions for Evaluating Sources
Given that difficulty and need for critical thinking, a useful way to evaluate sources is to think in the following terms, and if the answers are yes, then the source could be legitimate and reliable:
- Does the source openly disclose where it gets its information, and/or who wrote it, and/or whether or not it’s presenting an opinion?
- If the source is controversial, biased, or opinionated, is the author is someone with real expertise or authority in the subject?
- If the source is news- or information-based, does the source comes from a real and respected publisher, media company, or organization (including governmental organizations)?
- Does the source try to show evidence for each major claim that it makes?
- Does the source present a professional appearance or design, and/or does it follow the professional conventions of its medium?
When evaluating a source, keep in mind that the main criterion for judgment isn’t whether you agree with the source or think that the information in the source is right. What matters more is that the source is open and honest about its claims, and that its approach is valid. Even in peer-reviewed journals, the scholars who approve of a given article might disagree with its conclusions or implications, but they will publish it anyway if its methods are valid and its information is honest.
Biases and Hidden Agendas
Whenever you consult a source, always think carefully about the author’s or authors’ purpose in presenting the information. Few sources present facts completely objectively. In some cases, the source’s content and tone are significantly influenced by biases or hidden agendas.
Bias, in this context, means favoritism or prejudice toward a particular person, group, idea, or belief. For instance, an author may be biased against a certain political party and present information in a way that subtly—or not so subtly—makes that organization look bad. Bias can lead an author to present facts selectively, edit quotations to misrepresent someone’s words, and distort information.
Hidden agendas are goals that are not immediately obvious but influence how an author presents the facts. For instance, an article about the role of beef in a healthy diet would be questionable if it were written by a representative of the beef industry—or by the president of an animal-rights organization. In both cases, the author would likely have a hidden agenda.
Using Current Sources
Be sure to determine whether your research subject is affected by or tied to recent progress and developments. If your subject is, as most are, seek out sources that are current, or up to date. Depending on the subject, sources may become outdated relatively soon after publication, or they may remain useful for years. For instance, social media sites have evolved rapidly over the past few years. An article published in 2002 about this topic will not provide current information. On the other hand, a good research essay on the literary merit of the Bible could use books that were published decades ago and still remain relevant and high-quality.
Quality of Sources
Another way to think about legitimacy and reliability is to note that there is a range of quality among sources. This is different from whether a source is primary, secondary, or tertiary for your research aims. This instead means that some sources, on their own, are generally trusted to be legitimate and reliable, and some aren’t, and most are in-between. In other words, there is rarely a clear-cut, black-and-white answer about whether a source is legitimate and reliable.
In the table below you can find some guidelines for evaluating different types of sources.
Modern News Sources
Modern news sources have come under fire for disrupting distinctions among what counts as legitimate and reliable, so they are more complicated to deal with and require more of your own critical thinking. But often the problem is not that they publish illegitimate or unreliable articles. Instead, the charge is that they only publish the information that supports their own institution’s political agenda, and that the conclusions they draw from the information are bad. This might not mean that they are entirely unreliable or illegitimate. In those cases, they are in a gray area, so it would be up to the writer of the essay to put the source to its best use.
For instance, Vox typically publishes left-wing articles, and Fox News typically publishes right-wing articles. They might both draw from the same news story and same facts but present them in different ways with different rhetorical strategies in order to support opposite political agendas. So both could be cited as legitimate news sources, but relying only on Vox articles to support a left-wing thesis—or on Fox News articles to support a right-wing thesis—is not an effective use of research. It’s not entirely wrong, but a smart, skeptical reader wouldn’t be compelled very much by such support.
Common Errors in Evaluating Sources
The most common error students make in this regard is to rely on a source that purports to be a neutral, informative source but is actually an effort to propagandize, and is merely masquerading as an information service. These are often published or posted by small, unknown, or dishonest institutions. The mistaken students often find the kind of statement or fact that they hoped to use in their essays and fail to evaluate the source to see clues of its illegitimacy or unreliability.
The other common error students make is to use individual opinions of non-experts as a source of support. Often, such students will find statements on a blog or post that they want to use but fail to notice that the author of the statements has no convincing credentials and no meaningful authority on the issue.
Both of these errors come about more frequently in your research when you engage in “conclusion shopping.” This is the weakness of seeking out sources that draw the conclusions you want them to, which is different from real research. Real research is an honest search for answers, whatever they may be. That search is guided by your working thesis, of course, and most essay assignments eventually want you to commit to and support a position by the final draft, but that working thesis and that ultimate position should be altered and guided by the answers you find in your research. You should not seek to do this backward and look only for research that states the answers you wanted from the start. When you do, you are more likely to exclude or avoid legitimate and reliable sources, and to use illegitimate or unreliable sources, which will likely damage your research essay, your grade, and your own credibility as a writer.
Also keep in mind that looking at the end of the URL for a .org or similar indicator doesn’t tell you anything about the legitimacy or reliability of the source. You must analyze what the source presents and how it presents it.
Ultimately, there is no real short-cut to finding legitimate and reliable sources. And, in other words, there is no way to avoid the act of critical thinking. You must intelligently evaluate everything you read and use.