Secondary sources – which ones are trustworthy?
Conducting secondary source research is an important aspect of many HSC courses. This is especially appropriate in this day and age, because learning to critically assess the validity and accuracy of information is not only essential for the HSC, but also for everyday navigation in the festering cesspool of misinformation and fear-mongering that is the internet today.
The internet is probably going to be your go-to source for secondary source investigations. But the information available on the internet ranges drastically from cutting-edge research by professional scientists to blatantly illogical ramblings from conspiracy theorists. In this article, we will look at some common sources of information and discuss how to figure out whether to trust them.
Peer-reviewed journal articles
Academic journals are the gold-standard for secondary source investigations. These articles have gone through a (very!) rigorous peer-review process by experts in the field. Authors are also required to show evidence for any statements that they make, cite other journal articles throughout their writing, and declare any potential conflicts of interest.
The downside of academic journal articles is that they are typically written for a specialised audience and can be hard to understand. They are also sometime stuck behind a paywall and only allow you to read the abstract for free.
How do we get around these problems? The primary literature (i.e. articles describing new experiments that have been conducted) is often quite difficult to understand, but academic journals also publish review articles. Review articles are written by specialist experts and cite a range of primary literature while offering some interpretation. They also undergo peer-review and require any conflicts of interest to be declared. Review articles are therefore a good place to start to learn more about a topic. If you find something to be of particular interest, you can then follow the citation to the original article that the author is referring to.
As for the paywall problem, there’s not a lot that can be done about it. At the high school level, it is probably sufficient to just to forget about that article and find something else that’s open-access. If you really really need to read that article, however, you may be able to request an early version by emailing the authors. Most copyright licences allow authors to distribute a pre-print version as they choose.
The take-away message: Journal articles are excellent but can be difficult to understand. Try reading review articles first, and then move to primary literature if you feel you’re ready and interested.
Sydney Morning Herald. The New York Times. The Conversation. News and media outlets can be an excellent source of information…or they can lead you off a cliff.
Media outlets such as these produce articles that are directed at a general audience and easy to understand. But some are more reputable than others. Trustworthy articles are usually transparent about their sources of information and usually include links to databases and academic journal articles. For example, the ABC produced some excellent articles explaining the data surrounding the COVID19 pandemic, complete with impressive data visualisation and references to data sources. The Conversation is another helpful resource, as their articles are written by verified experts in the field, such as university professors.
However, news and media articles are not always transparent and trustworthy. Sometimes they will even pretend to reference academic journal articles while drastically misleading the reader. It is very important to be critical of any claims, especially sensationalist headlines. And remember, if in doubt, you can always ask your tutor or your school teacher.
Many companies may do business that is relevant to your research topic and their websites can sometimes contain a wealth of information. For example, chemistry students might visit the websites of major chemical manufacturers to research their production processes. Hence, these websites can be valuable resources, so long as you keep in mind that they are most likely promoting a particular product or service and generally only tell one side of the story.
This one should be obvious. Many Youtube channels are very informative and also extremely helpful for learning new concepts or understanding confusing ideas. But remember that anyone can make a Youtube video, so always check their credentials. You wouldn’t want to use Youtube as a formal source of information for an assignment, but it’s not always a bad place to be if you’re there to learn or revise.