Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Can you trust your source?

Recently, a reader pointed out a mistake I made in one of my articles. Apparently, I mistook a region as being part of South America, when in fact it was part of Central America. I was red in the face after I double-checked this info and, sure enough, I saw right there on the map that it was NOT part of South America.


Nonfiction writers do try to make their work as accurate as possible, and my mistake was in trusting a source to be reliable when, in fact, I should have double-checked what my source said.

For one thing, a source cannot be 100% credible because humans are, by nature, imperfect. We can't ALWAYS be right about something and, sometimes, we make mistakes. Fatigue, distractions, incorrect impressions and ideas, stress and lack of research can all contribute to a source providing incorrect or insufficient data.

For another thing, a source cannot be 100% credible because they may be the wrong source. Maybe they are not really the right source to use or they're not as much of an expert on that subject as they seem to be.

In my case, however, I trusted the wrong source. I used message boards and Yahoo Answers to gather the information I needed for that article. I thought that since the person answering the question actually HAD an answer, it was the right one. I thought, maybe they were speaking from personal experience.

In other words, they were not the right source for my article. I had no way of knowing if they were indeed speaking from personal experience or if they knew their geography enough to give a solid answer.

In light of these facts, I should have double-checked their answers. I shouldn't have assumed they were the right source to use. (You know what they say about when you assume something!) If a source is iffy, I should not use that source. And even then, if they are, I should have gone somewhere more credible to verify the accuracy of what they were saying.

I am currently reading the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. The book contains a section on checking the credibility of a source. The pointers they offer writers are this:

*The material has been reviewed by an editor or editors. The editors themselves have credentials which ensure they are serious editors who scrutinize and evaluate the material being published.

*The material is published by a company or site that has proven itself to be trustworthy. Additionally, it is endorsed or recommended by another reputable agency.

*Experts have backed up what is being said. (Or, in some cases, someone who can personally relate to the topic agrees with what is being said.)

* The source is recognized as someone with credentials to back up their knowledge and information.

*The material has been peer-reviewed.

I will have to be more diligent with the information I collect from sources in the future. This is why I use several sources for the information I need for my articles. Still, I must keep in mind that if there is no way for me to determine if a source is a credible and trustworthy source to use, I should find a better source or double-check the information being offered.

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