By Nancy A. Walker, Ph.D.
As we are bombarded with Internet access and a multitude of quick “information,” learners often have questions about what constitutes a credible scholarly source. Let’s look at aiding students in searching for data, sources, understanding credibility, and establishing positive scholarship in the online course room.
When searching for data or research information, we must establish and note to learners that there are two types of sources that we are able to access on the internet; primary and secondary sources. All students must then ascertain credibility in using the source in backing of their thoughts, discussions, and research at the collegiate level. As doctoral learners for example, students are responsible for adding data and research to the community at large. The main responsibility if such is consideration of, and use of credible, reliable, valid, and ethical data, sources, and research.
Primary sources are those sources in which the writer conducted the research being reported. This is the type of information found in scholarly, that is, peer reviewed journals. Secondary sources report the research of others. Secondary sources should be used with caution in scholarly work. Information taken out of context can often lead to incorrect interpretations. One does not know how well the writer of the secondary source interpreted and reported the research he or she is citing. Things one may consider important may have been left out or opinion may have crept into the report. Text books are examples of secondary sources. They may be used, but keep in mind that they are secondary, and they may be flawed. Self-help picks or books written for the general public are nearly always secondary sources and should very rarely be used as a source in backing for scholarly credibility at the collegiate level; furthermore, even thought of being used for first any information at the graduate level. All can and are found very easily on the internet. Who uses paper books/sources anymore? Sigh…
Online dictionaries and encyclopedias are not written for a specific discipline. If a word is important enough to define, for example, students necessitate knowing to tell the reader how they would define the word and use individuals who experts in the subject are as primary sources for that definition. Additional research to find this information is very applicable in using the internet. For example, a student can read a definition of a scholar and of a practitioner in the dictionary; but that will not tell them what a certain university means by the term Scholar-Practitioner. In defining terms in a scholarly paper, one would want to use the definitions of the scholars themselves, not of the dictionary.
Encyclopedias are written for the general public. Their summary of a topic leaves out much to be useful to a collegiate scholar. Nonetheless, they leave out extreme information per the level of expertise and accountability of graduate students. Go to the source for information, not someone reporting the source. This is true for all information and data accessible through the internet. For example, Wikpedia is a compilation of articles submitted by nearly anyone. Individuals do not need to be experts in the field and their “facts” are not checked. As such, the reliability and credibility of using Wikipedia is virtually null for collegiate information. There is no scholarly validity or credibility via the information posted. On the other hand, one can look up the sources (in the Wikipedia reference list) used, and research themselves in going to the primary source (being that one would find the primary source through investigation), and then use that source as it is the credible, first line of defense source.
Utilizing university sites, association sites (American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, The American Medical Association, etc.) peer reviewed sites, peer reviewed journals and data, and Internal Review Board (IRB) materials are certainly applicable via credibility. Anything peer reviewed, as a rule of thumb, is appropriate. As a student scholar or student scholar-practitioner, we need to require students to always utilize data and research that is ethical, peer reviewed, and mostly primary in nature.
Some questions that we as instructors can have students can ask themselves while looking for credible sites and information on the internet are:
1. Is this primary research?
2. Is the information from a primary source?
3. Is the information peer reviewed?
4. Is this secondary information? If so, where can I find the primary source to attend to the original data?
5. Am I using the academic information ethically?
As such, students need to use these questions when looking for credible sites in remembering that primary sources are those sources in which the writer conducted the research being reported. This is the type of information found in scholarly, that is, peer reviewed journals. Secondary sources report the research of others. Secondary sources should be used with caution in scholarly work. Information taken out of context often leads to incorrect interpretations.
Some questions to have students additionally ponder are:
1. Is your e-textbook a primary or secondary source? Explain.
2. Should we trust its credibility as it is from an online source? Why or why not?
3. If we find research noted in People Magazine or The Wall Street Journal for example, should we use this information? Why/why not? Could we use it? How?
These are great additions for online instructors to add to the Main Course Room Weekly Discussion Questions and participation requirements! Adding these prompts encourages critical thinking and application of Bloom’s Taxonomy on a higher level. They also cut down on the multitude of questions that we as online instructors are continuously asked!
“We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way.” ~John Holt
About the Teacher in Pajamas: Dr. Nancy Walker earned a BA in Liberal Arts/Psychology from Saint Vincent College, and a BA in Elementary Education K-8 with a specialization in Spanish from Seton Hill University. She earned an MS in General Psychology with specialization in Educational/Developmental Psychology from Capella University. She has a Ph.D. in General Psychology with specialization in Lifespan Development from Capella University. She has a wonderful husband and two, older daughters that share in the love of learning and helping others to learn and grow, too. They spend most of their time involved in community and church outreaches that are foundational in education, social service, and missions work. They also enjoy traveling and playing basketball and softball.