Evaluating Sources Part Two: The Hierarchy of Cheese

The somewhat odd title for this post connects to a Writing I example I often use for describing the difference between a good source and a bad source when doing sourced writing for academia (university writing, writing for publication…). In this post, I am going to extend this small, mildly humorous example to ridiculous lengths.

Let’s assume you are writing about cheese. There’s a lot of information about cheese out there and if you are doing university-level writing, you know that not every source has the same worth. My perennial example had to be modified a bit after the demise of both Angelfire and Geocities sites. Updated a bit, the rule of thumb is that if you go to Joe’s Cheese Site, you know, the one with the animated GIF Christmas lights and the dancing hamsters juggling Gouda cheese balls, you should have some inkling that although Joe may really like cheese, he’s probably not the authoritative source you are looking for.

Here’s why. When looking for sources, one way to evaluate them is to consider Aristotle’s Trivium: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. Joe’s Cheese site falls short in all three and here’s how. Ethos is the character and reputation of the speaker. We don’t know anything about Joe, not even his last name or address, and judging from how the site looks, his judgment may be poor. He could be six years old. We don’t know. Logos is the completeness and accuracy of the information. Joe doesn’t give us any idea where he gets his fun facts about cheddar, but amusing as the video clip of the exploding cheese cannon is, it doesn’t take much for us to apply the laws of physics and conclude that some editing skullduggery took place. Oh! and no, the moon really didn’t turn out to be made of green cheese, or as Joe claimed, well-marbled Roquefort. Finally, pathos is the emotional weight given the argument. Sometimes pathos is seen as a bad thing, somewhat like manipulating the reader/viewer/listener’s emotions. Used properly, pathos is a call to what is highest and best in the reader. Martin Luther King’s justifiably famous “I Had a Dream” speech is a good example of the proper use of pathos. Joe’s internet donation button at the bottom of the page for the support of nacho vendors in major league baseball parks uses pathos to manipulate viewers to donate to Joe. In reality, we don’t have to fear that nachos are being banned from ballparks. Oh, Joe.

Here is a list of kinds of sources, a top ten, so to speak. Take note: being #1 in this top ten is not good:

  1. The Land of Joe. Old fashioned home pages with obscured authorship and no fact checking. Some blogs would be here also. Do you know who it is? Is it someone who knows about the subject? Really? If not, skip it.
  2. About pages, Ask Jeeves pages, Yahoo group pages. The best of these can be almost like an encyclopedia, but remember, you don’t use encyclopedias or dictionaries in academic writing. The worst are rife with misinformation and rumor. Just say no.
  3. The first hit on Google. These days, the first hit on Google may be there because it paid to be there. Commercial sites, especially ones for medical practices, can look very authoritative and give general information about diseases or current issues in medicine, but they are doing it to get customers for their practice, not to disseminate scholarship. Is it a .com? Does it use phrases like “studies show” without naming the studies and letting you know who did it, when, and where? Don’t get your information from someone who is trying to sell you something.
  4. Newspapers or trade magazines. Trade books. The convention for these sources is to give news/ ideas, but in a way that does not allow you to trace sources. They cite somewhat, but not enough. Usable, but don’t rely on them. Exception: Sometimes The New York Times sponsors ¬†studies that use statistics correctly. If they cite properly, then it is usable.
  5. Wikipedia. Don’t use this as a source for your paper, because, as I pointed out in Part One, it is an encyclopedia. However, if you are in the situation where you must write on a subject where you haven’t the faintest idea how to start, Wikipedia can tell you some places to start. Read the entry, but pay closer attention to the Works Cited. They will be the kinds of sources you need to start with.
  6. Academic blogs. Yes, some blogs are rated about the same as ol’ Joe, but not all. If you think of blogs being a medium like books are a medium, you can see how, like books, not all blogs are alike. An academic blog is written by someone who studies, researches, or teaches (or all three) a subject and writes in the blog to store up ideas or to do writing that may end up eventually in a book or article. For example, Mike Rose is a professor with significant publications in the area of literacy and basic writing who keeps a blog. His blog would be extremely usable as a source. If you find a blog that looks academic, but you are not sure if the writer is “academic” enough to count, check the blog’s about page or the CV tab. Academics usually give a Curriculum Vitae that details who they are and their publications.
  7. Podcasts. These can be very good, very informative, and some have a huge following. I usually find mine using iTunes, but there are also video podcast series’ on YouTube. In a previous post, I linked Matt Chat, a video podcast series about the history of games and gaming. Here’s why I used it as an example: Matt Barton is not just some random guy. He is an Associate Professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and has published at least two books about game history and scholarship. This series of “chats” include interviews with some very important figures in the world of gaming and will be an important source for years to come as an archive for a medium that can be ephemeral.
  8. Web Journals. There are web journals on a variety of subjects. Some scholarly areas have primarily web scholarship; my area of Computers and Writing is a good example because web texts allow scholars to link and to show in a way that is impossible in print. A source is a true web journal if it is “peer reviewed” or “refereed.” This means that the proposed article is sent to reviewers (usually two) who give written feedback and an evaluation for the article. Scholarly print journals and books do this too.
  9. Print Journals. We are now entering the world of library access. You may find peer-reviewed journal articles in a Google Scholar search, but you can’t access it that way or you may be asked to pay for access. Our university library has paid the costs on your behalf for many, many of these research databases. Go to your university’s library site first.
  10. Books. Okay, all books are not equal, but I think you know that by now. The main division is between trade and university/scholarly. Note that trade books were listed at #4 because they do what they do, for the most part, without the scholarly tracing or sources that is typical of the kind of writing done in academic writing. Check who the publisher is and that can give you a clue. For example, Random House is a big, big publisher, but they do not do scholarly books at all. Hampton Press does, and so does University of Utah Press.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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