There are many guides out there on how to cite sources in your writing (e.g. scribbr, citethisforme and OCR) but relatively few on how to actually find these sources. I write about how this underutilised skill could be taught and how it could help society sort through the chaos that is internet literature.   

This is an interesting article about the lack of guidance on how to find reliable sources and distinguish them from bad ones, particularly in the context of academic writing. Alex shares their personal experience of struggling to find and cite sources for their physics dissertation and how they eventually learned the necessary skills during their PhD. He wonders why this critical skill is not taught more widely and proposes that it should be taught from the very beginning of a degree program.

Finally. After years of waiting, I would be heading to university to study physics. I was going to consume knowledge and understanding (pretty poorly at first) from realms of physics most fear 1. Subjects like quantum mechanics, astrophysics, magnetism, thermodynamics and special relativity. My only previous encounter of these topics was from watching Brian Cox waffle on T.V. while staring into the middle distance and ‘reading’2 books deemed a bit too much for the school curriculum3.

The experience surpassed my expectations. I remember my first time sitting in a daunting yet slightly decrepit lecture hall. A smartly dressed academic walked in, introduced themselves as well as the module we were about to take. Then came the magic. The academic turned to face the board, chalk firmly placed between thumb and forefinger, lifted up their arm and started to write on the blackboard formulas I immediately didn’t understand. It was wonderous.

But it was also really well structured. All the courses had recommended textbooks. Every other source required to pass the module was given to us. Our examination questions were, by and large, based on the explanations (and formulations) given in the recommended textbooks.

Why would that be a bad thing I hear you ask? Well, when it was time to write the dissertation for my final year project (a mock research task assigned to us in a specific physics area) I was utterly stumped.

I had to find scientific papers….

I had to understand them…

I had to somehow translate that understanding into my dissertation as text…

I then had to figure out the rules of citing literature in scientific dissertations…

I had to store, manage and put citations in my dissertation properly including a bibliography of references at the bottom…

I had to produce a document with the layout of a scientific paper…

Finally, I had to figure out what the hype about ‘LaTeX’ was about.

I’m not sure anyone had mentioned how to do any of this stuff during my degree. I think there might have been a couple of short mentions on referencing fundamentals during lectures when I was tuned out. What? Just because the subject matter was exciting didn’t mean that the teaching was. The point being, it was most definitely not made a priority. You could quite convincingly argue it was made the least important aspect of my physics degree.

Therefore, I did a lot of referencing in my dissertation the long and hard way. After lots & lots of staring, I guessed at which papers or textbooks were relevant to my work. In the hope my examiner wouldn’t notice (he did). Further, I typed all the references and citations manually. With more than 50 references in my dissertation, keeping track of each of them (looking up the original paper, noting where the citations are in the text, what citation corresponds to what reference, the year of each of the papers etc.) is a nightmare and incredibly time-consuming.

I did eventually learn how to search for reliable references and include them properly in written work during my PhD. It took longer than I thought it would. As ridiculous as it sounds the hardest aspect was learning how to ‘read’ a research paper. Every research area (and there are tons and tons) has its own lingo. Words they use within the field to describe certain aspects of their particular research. Every time I read a paper from a different field it is like an alien language (this isn’t reserved for non-scientists you know!). If I wanted to understand the paper fully I have to first learn the lingo first. I needed to know how to look up the meanings of these words. Even so, I rarely had enough time for this so I had to learn how to pick up the tiny bit of information I needed without having to learn the alien words. I had to learn the places to pick up key information in the paper (Abstract, Conclusion, plots of results, figure captions) and learn how to extract the information through combining information from this section.

This whole ordeal made me wonder: why isn’t at the very least the method of finding reliable sources taught? Or at least not taught more widely? Also, why isn’t this method and the one of how to dissect information from information sources you don’t understand the very first thing that is taught in a physics degree? I mean literally. Day one, lecture one. It would have made the whole dang thing much easier. I would have had the skills to look up other references and dissect them, supplementing the information in the recommended textbook. I don’t believe that learning is a one size fit all skill.  Where one person would find the recommended textbook representation of a physics concept easy to understand, another would find it hard. This may be the opposite way round for a different source covering the same concept in a slightly different way. Maybe fewer people would fall asleep in lectures too!

What about the real world though? Surely the science of referencing only applies to dissertations and academic papers? Well, I propose that sourcing is used all the time by pretty much everyone. Have you ever bought anything from the internet? How do you know if it is a good product? You look at the reviews of course: a source of information on the quality and reliability of the product. But how do you know whether this source is trustworthy? For example, as of the 2nd May 2021, the new Lego Star Wars game has 25 five-star reviews despite the fact it has not even been released yet. It doesn’t even have a release date at this point! Think of how many times have you been burned buying a poor-quality product due to non-reliable sources.

In my opinion, referencing is one of the most severely underrated skills in our society. It is hardly mentioned, yet used all the time. Very few get an education in it. In an era of fake news, conspiracy theories and misinformation, why do we not teach how to find and use trustworthy sources in schools? Forget the dissecting of scientific and other scary looking articles. I think that would be a bit too advanced for kids. But the basics of figuring out if sources are likely reliable is actually quite simple: reputation of author, reputation of institution/company the author belongs to and, for older articles, the number of times the article is referenced in other sources (citations in scientific literature).

For the reputation of the author, type their name in a google search and see if there is a lot of search results for them (even better if they have a Wikipedia page). See how many previous articles the author has written and how many are for reputable companies/institutions. For the reputation of the institution, it is again a google search and simply see how often they are mentioned around the internet, news stories, awards won etc. (again a Wikipedia entry is a pretty good indicator!). If the paper you are looking at is an older one, look at the number of times it is referenced in other articles (how many hyperlinks to the article). The number of citations in scientific articles can give a good indicator of the article’s reliability.

This method is by no means perfect. But I was surprised to realise how often this works for such a basic metric. I use this all the time for websites and product reviews and even services. If the product you want is a computer, then a review by a highly reputable computer website will likely be far more trustworthy and useful than by a consumer. When on Facebook or Twitter, for any claim on any issue, I can check the person making it, who they are and where they work. If the claim is about climate change and they are a receptionist from Dorking who has a blog on alien abduction with 5 followers, it is unlikely to be a trustworthy source. If there is no information about them at all, the default is don’t trust4.

I think each of these three indicators could be taught to secondary school children at a basic level without the need for a scientific education at all. All that is needed is google search.

Perhaps then, the next generation will not believe whatever is written on the computer screen.     

  1. Spoiler: there is nothing to be afraid of. Believe it or not physics is actually the simplest of the sciences (most of my PhD was trying to remove all the annoying complex biology and chemistry from my nice and simple crystal). Our brains are used to seeing the patterns of complexity physics creates, but not necessarily the laws behind them. Simple things are therefore quite confusing to a brain. However, once this confusion is worked through (this might take a while and a bit of maths) the known concepts of physics are simple. Right up until you come across a new concept and the process repeats…
  2. Looking at pretty words and wondering what they mean
  3. I remember not liking this the school curriculum didn’t properly prepare me for university. And my exam heavy university undergraduate did not properly prepare me for my PhD. It wasn’t great all around. See here and here.
  4. Apologies to all young upcoming authors! Wait… that’s me too… So, should you trust this article about trusting articles? Or is that you actually trusting what I’ve written, so therefore you should trust my article, which then sends you back to not trusting my article? My head hurts. Just give an exception for this one please!