Academic Module 5: References and Citations

19 Identifying Reliable Sources of Information: What Discerning Readers and Viewers Do

These days, thanks to the Internet and social media, we have access to almost unlimited amounts of information, which makes it even more essential that Internet users know how to know what sources of information are reliable and which ones are less trustworthy. There are some simple strategies that you can use to discern whether something that you read or view online is reliable or not. Let’s explore these strategies.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources of Information

Humans often like to gossip. The problem with gossip, however, is that the more people the gossip goes through, the less reliable the information becomes. This is because people tend to embellish and/or misremember details. To know the original facts, a person needs to speak directly with the originator of the factual information.

What holds true in our everyday lives can be applied to academic settings as well. In academic settings, the terms that we normally use to identify the degree of separation from the original facts are ‘primary‘, ‘secondary‘, ‘tertiary‘, [1](and so on) sources of information. The primary source of information is the original source where the information was first produced. For example, researchers who conduct research are the primary sources of information about that research. Secondary resources report information by taking it from a primary source. For example, a news story that reports some key findings from a research study is a secondary source of information. Now, imagine that a student reads the news story and makes a reference to the information about the research study as reported in the news story in a class discussion or in an essay. Now, the student has become the tertiary source of information.

Who would you consider the most reliable and accurate source of information here: primary, secondary, or tertiary? Why?

Also, think about whether all secondary sources of information can be trusted or not. How would you determine, for instance, whether you would trust a story published on a website? This brings us to the question of credentials and credibility, something that experts have.

Experts and Expertise

When you read something online, in addition to looking at the degree of separation from the original source, you should also check the credentials of the source. Let’s say you read a news story about a research study’s findings. Is the person who wrote the story a journalist of repute or an expert on the topic or someone who writes frequently about this topic? There are some questions to keep in mind. Generally, the more expertise a person has, the more you can trust the information they provide.

Current or Outdated Information

Another way to determine if a piece of information is reliable or not is to look at whether the information is old or new. Depending on the topic, something that was published ten years ago may no longer be reliable or relevant. For instance, if the topic is ‘artificial intelligence’, then a reader may need to find the most recent or current information as the field of artificial intelligence is evolving and changing rapidly. One way, then, to ascertain whether something is current is to look at the year of publication. Also, students can skim through the information to quickly ascertain whether the data or statistics reported are the most recent or not. Remember, however, that some topics will require you to look for information that’s older as well. When in doubt, always check with your instructor.


  1. If you click on the words and see the definitions, you'll also find audio clips of how  these words are pronounced. If you look carefully, you'll find two audio clips, each featuring a slightly different way of saying the same word. Why do you think the same word can be pronounced in two (or more) ways? Hint: It has something to do with Global Englishes! 

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Demystifying Academic English by Rashi Jain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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