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Current Issues: Web Resouces: Questionable

A guide for researching current issues and controversial topics in the news and public debate, with emphasis on writing argumentative essays about these topics.

Non-Scholarly Online Sources

 

This page will discuss methods for properly using non-scholarly sources in your essays and projects. Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, aggregators like Google News, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Reddit, and 4chan, as well as blogs and personal interviews all fall into this category and all, under the right circumstances, can be included in your essays, projects, and presentations.

 


 

Should You Include These Sources?

 

It really depends on your professor, class, and assignment. This page discusses how to use information found through non-scholarly websites that you use more frequently in your personal lives and that have extremely up to date info. It’s important to know that a website you love or trust might not be one your professor finds acceptable. Even a website reporting accurate information might still be unacceptable as far as your assignment is concerned. Unless your professor prefers only academic, scholarly, or peer-reviewed articles then you can use resources you find on the internet, in many forms and from many places. But you MUST be able to defend the legitimacy of those sources. This page will discuss, and tell you how to properly use, many common internet sources that aren’t scholarly. If you’re using any of these, just remember to do it carefully.

 

The point is:

 

Proceed With Caution

 

The websites listed here are not Scholarly, Academic, or Peer-Reviewed, which means three things:

 

  1. If your professor asked for those, you can’t use these.

  2. They include opinions and biases which come from the websites themselves, your past usage and internet preferences, and often both. You need to be prepared to navigate these opinions and biases, to verify the legitimacy of your sources and defend them, and to understand if your professor will not accept them.

  3. If you have any doubts about the page you're on or if it’s a good source, it’s probably not.

 

Wikipedia

 

If you find most of your information on Wikipedia, that’s okay! It’s okay to use Wikipedia. It’s just not okay to quote or cite Wikipedia.

 

Read the Wikipedia pages relevant to your topic as a primer and to expand your basic understanding. We do this, too! But remember, there’s very little oversight - no one’s being paid to check these pages to see if they’re accurate, which is why you’ve heard a million times that it isn’t acceptable for scholastic work. Though Wikipedia articles aren’t scholarly or peer-reviewed, we understand that they are sources of information.

 

Remember:

 

  1. If anything seems wrong or unreliable, don’t believe it.

  2. If the Wikipedia page you're on doesn’t have citations (little blue hyperlink numbers next to key ideas) of if it has tiny blue writing that says “citation needed,” be extra cautious.

 

Here’s How To Use It:

 

You can’t quote Wikipedia, but you can quote legitimate articles you find through Wikipedia. Click the blue number next to a line, quote, or idea to go to its specific citation or reference, or scroll through the citations at the bottom of the page. Many of these citations are from legitimate sources.

 

  1. Be very careful in selecting what information to use (this is true in all research, but especially true here). If you find an article linked through Wikipedia, make sure to evaluate that article and its source. Often these articles were cherry picked to say what the writer wanted.

  2. Never reference Wikipedia directly. Always reference the article you found on Wikipedia.

 

Here are some websites that will help you use Wikipedia in your classes:

 

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign: Use Wikipedia Effectively for Research

Cornell University Digital Literacy Resource: Using Wikipedia

From Wikipedia: Academic Use and Researching With Wikipedia

 

 

YouTube Videos, Blogs, Etc.

 

 

If you’re citing a YouTube video, blog, Instagram, or really any other random thing you find on the internet, it is up to you to evaluate the source for legitimacy. Ask yourself: who posted the video or article? Who produced it? Is it truly relevant and respected in the area you’re writing about, or just some person? If you find a video on YouTube and it was posted by the United States Department of Agriculture or the Dean of Literature at Stanford College, that’s very different than if it’s posted by someone named “Yolo945” who mostly posts unwrapping videos and Katy Perry covers.

 

Even if the source looks legitimate, you shouldn’t trust the posters’ name or given information. Can you follow links to confirm they are who they say they are? Are those videos also posted on their own website? If you can’t find evidence of the poster or their organization existing it’s a problem for you and for your works cited or reference page.

 

Twitter

 

Referencing Twitter isn’t entirely different from referencing YouTube. Twitter is often lauded for its good uses (aiding communication for people under totalitarian regimes; helping people get assistance during terrorist attacks; even helping authors promote books) and maligned for its negative uses (lack of depth; stalking and harassing, especially of female celebrities).

 

If you have occasion to quote or references a tweet or series of tweets in your essay, please keep in mind that they should be treated like any other electronic source.

 

Remember:

 

  1. Don’t quote someone because you like what they say. Quote them because their tweets have relevance to your assignment.

  2. If the author is relevant to your assignment (rather than the hashtag or tweet), confirm that they have legitimacy (see YouTube, etc., above).

  3. If quoting an expert, celebrity, etc., confirm that their twitter handle is actually linked to them and that they either create the tweets themselves or take responsibility for them.

 

 

Emails / Personal Interviews

 

You should consider using these often. If you’re writing an essay or giving a presentation, try to contact an expert - a professor that teaches the topic at a respectable institution, a journalist who covers it, or a person working in that field. Often if you plan ahead, you can email these people and get them to answer questions. Plus, they’re easy to reference!

 

Interviews can add a great deal to your essay, project, or presentation. They provide timely information, give you condensed opinions that might be hard to find, and can back up or contradict what you’re seeing in the literature around your topic. They can also add a useful amount of humanity or emotion. If your topic is human trafficking, writing about what you read in an Atlantic article is great, but interviewing a former victim, trafficker, or ranking police officer who works in that area will provide you with great information and make for a more interesting read. Also, many professors will respect that you took the effort and it will make your assignment stand out from others in the class, since few think to do this.

 

Remember:

 

  1. Make sure the person you interview is worth interviewing. They should be respected in their field, and your professor should be able to confirm that they’re an actual person. Don’t interview your friend Chad unless he happens to be a genuine expert in the area you’re discussing.

  2. Tell them you’re a student and describe the format of your assignment (essay, presentation, etc.) up front.

  3. Plan ahead. Contact them early and give them time to respond. Have a back-up plan if they don’t.

  4. Once they agree to be interviewed, if it’s possible, provide questions in advance. If there are things they don’t want to discuss, do not pressure them.

  5. Don’t argue with them. They’re the expert and you sought out their opinion. If you disagree with them, that’s between you and your paper.

  6. Be polite and professional.


 

 

Facebook

 

 

This should not shock you, but just because it came up in your news feed, that doesn’t make it acceptable for school or your professor. Facebook tends to reflect you and your Facebook friends, not your academic life, and most of the articles that float around Facebook don’t have references. With that in mind, be careful.

 

If you find an article you’d like to use, be sure to evaluate the article and its source on their own merit. Some question you should ask yourself: Did this originally come from a newspaper? A journal? A magazine? If it’s from a web page, who owns or operates it? If it’s an opinion piece, who wrote it? Is the person who wrote it a recognized expert? Have they written other things? Is there corporate information? Contact information? How easy would be to write a Works Cited or Reference page for this?

 

Remember:

 

If you have trouble figuring out who wrote what you’re looking at or who owns it, you probably shouldn’t use it. Like Wikipedia, you shouldn’t reference that you got this on Facebook. Cite the source it originally came from.

 

 

Aggregators: Google News, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Cracked, Etc.

 

Content or news aggregators collect and repost articles from elsewhere (everywhere from big names like The New York Times or the Atlantic, to lesser known or more casual sources like the Orlando Sentinel or TMZ). They provide a large number of articles, lists, videos, news clips, etc., and update many times a day.

 

Some, such as Huff Post, employ journalists, bloggers and news teams that produce content.

 

Even the most respectable of these, the ones that reproduce only vetted news articles and attempt to be politically neutral (think Google News), are not “academic sources” and seldom if ever have articles from scholarly journals. If your professor requires academic, scholarly, or peer-reviewed journals, you needn’t bother with anything from these types of sites. However, if you’re looking for news articles, much of what they post or produce is topical, relevant, and useful.

 

Remember:

 

  1. You’re citing the article first. If the article you’re looking at is re-published (if it came from somewhere else) and you can find it in its original source, that’s better.

  2. These sites are almost always biased - they lean to the left or right in what they chose to republish or produce. Using biased sites is extremely problematic, and you’re treading in dangerous territory. If you’re using an article the aggregator re-published, evaluate the original site. Use your judgement based on the formality of the class and professor, the syllabus, assignment rubric, and the nature of the assignment. If there’s any doubt about the legitimacy of your sources, you’re best finding new ones.

  3. You can also qualify in your assignment why you chose that source or article. Something along the lines of, “While BuzzFeed is not the most scholarly of news sites, this article is relevant because . . .”

 

 

 

Social Aggregators: Reddit, 4Chan, Etc.

 

These are sites that allow individuals to post thoughts, opinions, articles, videos, etc., and where other people comment on things that were posted. They often have groups or threads arranged around specific topics. While you can find good information on them, they’re often criticized for allowing or encouraging misinformation, hate speech, and essentially the worst parts of the internet, and they may set off red flags with your professors. Unless you have a reason to be looking for information here, you probably shouldn’t be.

 

Remember:

 

These are about as far away as you can get from academic or scholarly sources. You should assume you can’t trust anything here without independently verifying the source and/or information. It cannot be stressed enough that you need to be cautious, and that the burden of proof will be on you.