Credible Science: Tips to Finding Good References
The internet is HUGE with lots of information on any given topic. How do you make sure you are finding the correct, credible facts for the scientific research papers and articles you write? In this article, I outline the importance of finding good sources when researching a topic on the internet and the steps to finding the real facts in the sea of available online information.
Imagine your friend gives you a paper that they are writing for their lake systems class about the ecosystem of Lake Champlain, a large lake in the United States situated between New York State and Vermont. Upon discussion of the various species of fish that are found in the lake, your friend writes that although this is a freshwater lake, connected to the ocean hundreds of miles away through a freshwater river system, sharks are said to be found living in it. You’re interested, so you pull up the source that they’ve cited for this claim and find that the source is completely bogus. It’s a blog post by someone who says they’ve “found a shark”, backed up by a fuzzy picture of some sort of large fish in an indiscriminate location. You read further in the paper and see that your friend also claims that “Champ”, a reptilian lake monster from prehistoric times, also currently inhabits the lake. Worse still, your friend’s claim is even harder to believe since they have no supporting source to corroborate this lake monster-related information… So is your friend making these “facts” up, or did they just get bad information out there on the web? Chances are, they just read the wrong sources.
Although this example is a bit silly, the reason for good references when it comes to scientific writing, or any non-fiction writing, is no laughing matter. The reason for good sources is simple: good references = good, credible information. You want to get the facts right. Not only is this good for your own integrity as a trusted writer, but it also gives credit to the originator of the information for their research contributions. In the case of science, you want to acknowledge researchers for all their dedication and years of hard work.
The art of searching for sources
The internet is HUGE. Where do I start?
Start with a database. Good examples of these academic research databases, like PubMed, can be found here. Even GoogleScholar can be a great place to start! Universities sometimes have library databases that can help you find places to look up credible sources too, so be sure to check out your institution’s webpage(s) or talk to your local librarian for advice.
Start broad, then narrow in on information as you go.
The next key step is to decide what to search for. This sounds trivial, but can be challenging! It’s best to start with your topic of interest, in the example above I would suggest typing into a database search bar the main focus of the paper: “Lake Champlain ecosystem”. From here, you’ll likely receive hundreds of articles and sources of information. If that topic is too broad, you may want to try searching instead for something more manageable, like “fish species in Lake Champlain” or “microorganisms in Lake Champlain”. These can help you narrow your search to the specifics.
Review articles are super useful.
To avoid getting overwhelmed, start by looking at review articles on your topic. These can be easily targeted by an advanced search option in your database. Review articles provide an overview of the topic in broad strokes. The other great thing about review articles is that they usually are full of references to primary sources of literature (AKA the original work). Therefore, these are great places to find primary literature articles for further research to reference in your own paper.
Checking the source.
So you’ve found a review article that led you to a primary research article on the sturgeon population in Lake Champlain. Great! But how do you know if it’s a good, believable source of information? Some basic things to look into are:
Where did the source come from? If it’s from a research facility, trusted organization, or university, it is usually sound work.
Is the journal/website that the article came from peer reviewed? This means that in order to publish the article, it needed to go through rigorous checking by multiple scientists in order to ensure it contains sound, credible science.
Are there any obvious conflicts of interest in funding for the project? For example, if the sturgeon article is published by a company that is promoting sturgeon fishing tours in Lake Champlain, you may want to be more cautious of their findings of “abundant” fish in the area. Explicit conflicts of interest are usually outlined at the end of the article near the acknowledgements.
When was the article published? Depending on how old the article is, it may be outdated now that new research has come on the scene, so you may want to check to see if there is newer information out there before using this source.
Once you believe your source is credible, only then should you use the information in your paper or article. The credibility of science itself rests in your hands!
Happy source searching!