On The Use of Sources, Citations, and Links

As educators, we spend a great deal of time trying to teach students how to research, how to use sources, and, perhaps most importantly of all, how to tell a good source from a bad one. I know how to help students do this in person, where we can work with lots of practical examples; I used to think it was possible to actively teach source evaluation online. I’ve created guides and handouts on source evaluation, as well as linked to other guides, like this one on “Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask” from UC Berkeley.

Of late, I’ve grown less sure that it’s possible to teach resource evaluation remotely, and more sure that it’s a skill that many people desperately need.

I’ve spent the last year working as a paid blogger. I’m writing about a variety of subjects in which I have some expertise, and I’m blogging much as I do on my own sites. I strive for accuracy and specificity, I provide citations, and I link to solid sources.

But my peers are much less likely to link to sources, or provide citations; and when they do link to a source, more often than not, it’s one that I’d identify as a resource to avoid. I note that most, if not all, my blogging colleagues are college educated, and many have graduate degrees. But increasingly, I’m noticing not only my colleagues’ blog posts have citation problems, but others’ blog posts and articles by professional journalists (both on line and in print), and discussion forum posts that demonstrate that the writers can’t actually tell if a resource is decent, or utter crap.

Here’s an example of a source a fellow paid blogger linked to in a post about Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The piece “Frankenstein: Themes, Images and Metaphor Birth, Biology and the Feminist Angle in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is from a Suite 101 site; pretty much anyone who is functionally literate in English can (and does) post on Suite 101. That’s generally true of most content sites, and I’m not meaning that as a slam; I think it’s a virtue. That said, there are problems with treating all content, from all sources, as equally valid. This piece opens with this sentences:

In 1818 Shelley created a much loved Gothic novel, Frankenstein, which she would use as a medium to present her ideas and thoughts on birth, biology and feminism. Birth is, for most women, considered to be one of the most important, precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced. Mary Shelley, in her novel Frankenstein took this theme and distorted it in order to produce one of the most famous gothic novels ever written.

There are some minor infelicities; much-loved needs a hyphen, Frankenstein isn’t the actual title of the novel, nor is it italicized as a title. But the real problem is that the ideas are trite, and that they are expressed as a string of prepositional phrases. There’s the ugly duplication in “ideas and thoughts,” and a fair amount of “hesitation” padding—“for most women,” “considered to be,” and then more synonym phrases—“precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced.”

And of course, there’s the paucity of thought inherent in the assertion itself—and the disconcerting agreement problem inherent in “considered to be one of the most” to modify “event,” in the singular.

No one is perfect, and heaven knows, I can’t spell or proof my own prose. I make mistakes all the time. But those two sentences were bad enough, given the absence of content, that I read them and wondered “who wrote this?”

The author is a grad student enrolled in a Comparative Literature M.A. program in London.

In other words, if you don’t know enough about Mary Shelley or her novel to realize that the piece is stupid, if you aren’t a sophisticated enough reader to know that the English is less than acceptable in terms of basic grammar and syntax (never mind style), then the author appears to have legitimate “credentials.”

I’m also noticing another issue related to an inability to evaluate a source; a phenomenon that researchers call the Dunning-Kruger Effect; that’s when “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it” (Kruger, Justin and David Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 77 no. 6 (1999): 1121–34). Essentially, as blogger Patrick Nielsen Hayden notes (quoting Kieran Healy):

[A]s a famous paper by Kruger and Dunning showed, people who are bad at what they do are generally also incapable of understanding that they suck&hmdasand this directly contributes to inflated self-perception. So, incompetence tends to make people cocky and people prefer cocky judgements over demonstrated expertise, which is pretty much the worst of both worlds.

On a community forum post recently, a mother explaining why she is against vaccination for her kids wrote:

I’ve read over thousands of pages of actual studies that were conducted on the individual adjuvents and attenuated viruses and bacterials. History of vaccines, of disease, demographics with a medical jargon book at hand if I didn’t understand something. I’ve read all the inserts to the vaccines, I’ve watched the vaccine (aka drug companies) companies. I’ve come to my conclusion that vaccination is not for me or mine.

This is someone who thinks Internet research—research she can’t understand without a specialized dictionary—gives her the same sort of qualifications as someone with an M.D. One reason I know that she isn’t an M.D. is that she gets basic science facts wrong, repeatedly, refers to outdated descriptions of how vaccinations are made, and thinks this site is a medically researched and scientifically valid site.

I don’t really have a solution on an individual level. But I do think one of the things we can do, all of us, as writers and educators, is keep providing better sources, better links and as kindly and gently as possible, point out why a particular citation is less than respectable. At least that way, by linking to good sources, we’ll eventually drive the lesser citations down in search engine rankings.

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