Is it authoritative? A not-so-quick guide.

In a time when anyone can post anything on the internet and swear it’s true, it’s more important than ever to ensure the information you are gathering is correct. And to be honest, it can be absolutely exhausting. This post started out to be a “quick guide”, but the further I dug into the topic, the more complex it became. Unfortunately there is no easy or quick way to ensure the information you are reading is correct. It takes research, diligence and a little bit of intuition. It takes work. But if you keep your wits about you and follow some of the steps listed below, you’ll be all right.

First things first, what is an authoritative resource?

An authoritative resource is something that has been researched and written by a person who is considered to be an expert (or authority) in their field. An economist with a PhD in microeconomics who currently works for the University of State and has published thirteen peer-reviewed journal articles on the effect of macaroni on the economy of Micronesia would be considered an expert in microeconomics. They would not be considered an expert in microbiology, Microsoft, microwaving or micro-brewing. Therefore, an article written by this person about economics could be considered an authoritative resource. An article written by this person on the habits of microorganisms would probably not be an authoritative resource. [Apologies to economists everywhere for this example. I’m a librarian, not an economist. Cut me some slack]

The databases here at the Law Library (HeinOnline, Westlaw, LEXIS, CCH Intelliconnect, National Consumer Law Center, EBSCOhost, Ohio Capitol Connection, PACER, Fastcase) are all considered authoritative resources. They contain source material from what are called “primary sources” - government agencies, legislative bodies and the United States Court system – sources that actually create the laws and rules of this land. The databases also contain materials called secondary sources that refer directly to those primary sources, like peer-reviewed journal articles, treatises by experts in the field, law reviews, legal encyclopedias and restatements. Any information accessed from one of our databases can be considered authoritative.

The books housed in the Law Library are also considered authoritative. They were written or compiled by experts in the field; the information is factual and has been corroborated by other sources. Not every book written is an authoritative resource. Here at the Law Library we only purchase books from reputable vendors who have vetted their authors. We do the work of ensuring they are authoritative for you. Out in the wild, you need to be more diligent, researching the author, the publisher and the editor to ensure they actually know what they’re talking about.

Determining the reliability and authority of other online resources is much more complicated. There are several steps that should be followed to ensure the information being presented in a website is accurate.

1. What is the domain?

For the most part, .gov or .edu domains are considered trustworthy. They are reserved for government and educational institutions, respectively, and have the reputations of their institutions to back them up. However, some universities do give .edu domains to their students, who can then use those domains to say anything and everything that they want, so keep an eye out for that. A good way to tell that it is not an “officially sanctioned” university site is the style, logo, font, colors or other page layouts are a little bit “off”. Universities will use a standardized theme for all official pages which is not shared with students. Wiley students may attempt to copy those looks, but will not be 100% successful.

.gov domains are generally considered safe, though a few government officials use their official government webpages to promote a political view or piece of legislation currently up for a vote. A good rule of thumb is to always ask yourself what they are trying to accomplish with the information they are presenting. Are they trying to convince you of something? Sway your way of thinking in support of something they’re trying to accomplish? If so, the information may not be completely disinterested and reliable.

.com, .net, .biz and .org domains can all be purchased by groups who may have an agenda that skews the information being presented. Go to the “About Us” section of their website to see what their goals and audience really are. Ask yourself the same questions as above: what are they trying to accomplish with the information being provided? Do they seem to be presenting alternative views and opinions or just sticking to the one view?

2. Who is the author?

Do a search for the author of the piece in your web browser. Do they appear to be an expert in their field? Are they cited by other sources you know to be reputable?

3. What is the original source material?

Where did they get their information? Is the source listed by name? Are there links to external sites with corroborating information? Are you able to find the information presented on other websites that are not affiliated with the website you’re looking at?
If the source is a person, perform a search for that person in your web browser to find other references to them from other sources. If you can’t find them anywhere else, they’re probably not an expert. If they are associated with a group or institution with a strong agenda, their information might not be disinterested and so might not be as reliable.

4. What is the evidence and how do they prove it?

Reputable news sources should only list evidence that is able to be corroborated. Do they just say “scientists agree” or is there a link to the specific research that tells you 15 scientists out of every 20 interviewed agreed? Are you able to independently verify the assertions they are making if they do not link the study in question? Do a Google search for the evidence and see if you can find it. If not, it might not be true. If you do find the research, are there other articles that reference the research that have drawn alternate conclusions?

In summation, finding reliable resources is uphill work that never seems to end. Mulder from the X-Files insisted The Truth is Out There. Of course he also said ‘Trust No One’. Wise man, that Mulder.

And, like any good reputable resource, here are some external links with similar information to corroborate what I have already said.