Think you’ve got sources and citations mastered? Put your knowledge to the test. The questions and answers here are based on ethics in journalism, not your organization’s style guide, which may have stricter rules. Once you’re done, read on to learn more about proper citations and how you can protect your content’s credibility!
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Protecting Your Content’s Credibility
The content on your website is a lot like the recipes in a cookbook. Very few recipes are original. Fried chicken is fried chicken is fried chicken. You can add your own spices and twists to your recipe, but at the end of the day – it’s another fried chicken recipe.
Same with content – there are only so many ways to talk about nursing careers, home improvement, diabetes control, banking and whatever you call your jam. As much as we try to be original and thought-provoking, we still go back to the till to find the same statistics, research and data that support our theories.
In a day when bazillion sources are available at your fingertips and fact-checking takes mere seconds – there’s no excuse for misrepresenting facts. Protect your credibility by following best practices for finding credible sources and citing them properly.
What Is a Credible Source?
A credible source is one that has established trustworthiness based on their expertise and experience in a subject or based on research they’ve conducted. When I vet resources for content, I consider:
- Have I heard of this source?
- Has my audience heard of the source?
- How long has the source been around?
- What does the source base its facts on? Is it based on original research, and if so, how big is their sample?
- Does the source share its methodology for collecting data? Do they back it up with evidence?
In the digital world, when we’re evaluating the credibility of a website, we sometimes look at a website’s domain authority, which is a proprietary metric from Moz that predicts how Google values a website or web page. The higher the domain (on a scale of 0 to 100), the more likely its content will show up in search engine results. That said, just because something has a high domain authority doesn’t mean it’s a credible website.
Wikipedia, for example, has a domain authority of 97 – something very few of us will ever reach. Yet, I don’t allow my writers to cite Wikipedia as a source. Why? Because it’s a secondary source – it’s a repository for user-generated content.
Wikipedia is not a credible source, nor is it a primary source. It’s a good place to start research, but if you want reliable, verified, credible sources, use the footnotes on Wikipedia entries’ listings and track down the primary sources. You may use it to settle trivia arguments over happy hour, but look for better, more reliable sources for your content.
Primary vs Secondary Sources
Primary sources are those who collect data, analyze it, sort the results, interpret meaning, and disperse information. They are also the originators of research, theories, studies and ideas. Primary sources have direct knowledge of a person, place, idea, thing, or event. They are the closest to the information that’s being written about. Examples of primary sources include:
- Memoirs, first-person essays, autobiographies
- Survey results
- Studies, research, test results
- Interviews (conducted by the writer/publisher)
- Legal documents
- Public records
- Some academic journal articles
I say “some academic journal articles” because these can be a combination of primary and secondary sources. Academic articles are secondary sources when they cite others’ research to set up their own hypotheses; they’re primary sources when they add their own data and interpretations of research findings.
Secondary sources are those that pass along information. Examples of secondary sources include:
- Wikipedia and encyclopedia-type sources
- Most blogs (except first-person accounts, like travel blogs)
- Any medium that talks about a primary source or evaluates someone else’s work, such as a newspaper or magazine article
Newspapers and magazines, of course, are known to conduct surveys and produce original/primary content, but they also report on information from other sources, such as press releases and other companies’ white papers.
When Bad Sourcing Happens to Good People
I like to believe that misinterpretation of facts doesn’t happen maliciously. Misinterpretation is more of a careless thing that happens because we’re in a hurry, lazy or desperate to be right. So, we take factual statements and bend them to fit our arguments.
Here’s one of my favorite examples of sourcing gone wrong:
- A writer wrote: “Home health care is up to 19 percent less expensive than traditional in-hospital care, according to The Atlantic.”
- I fact-checked the stat and learned that The Atlantic quoted a company called MedPageToday, who was quoting HealthAffairs.org.
- The original source, it turns out, referred to one program in New Mexico that targeted a select group of insured people with acute care diagnoses. In other words, it was irresponsible for the writer to take the results of one case study and apply it to all home- and hospital-based health care settings.
Another favorite example comes from my own industry – content marketing. We LOVE to publish lists of “content marketing stats everyone needs to know.” These are nice little roundups for those weeks when someone on the team missed a blog post deadline.
Let’s say I’m looking for data that shows, on average, how many pieces of content marketers create per day or per week. I find this stat from Neil Patel’s post, “38 Content Marketing Stats That Every Marketer Needs to Know.”
If you use that stat in your content, you can’t cite Patel as the source. Well, you can, but I’d call you lazy or irresponsible. I clicked through to eMarketer to verify the stat and found I can’t use it because:
- It’s too old – 2013 was so five years ago.
- The 60% stat isn’t even mentioned in the eMarketer post.
- In order to access the full report from eMarketer, which I assume has the 60% stat, I have to pay. Nah.
Even though I trust Patel as a subject matter expert, I’m not going to use his “60% of marketers” stat because he doesn’t “own” the research and I can’t validate it.
How Do You Properly Cite Sources in Online Content?
Credible sources must be given attribution for their work. Do you need to attribute every fact in your article to a credible source? Please don’t.
Here’s an example a writer turned in that made me giggle. They wrote, “According to the University of Tennessee, the law of inertia states that objects in motion will continue moving until an external force causes it to stop.”
If anyone deserves attribution of the law of inertia, it would be Sir Isaac Newton, definitely not the University of Tennessee.
A citation is an in-copy attribution to the source from which you obtained facts or information. You need to include a citation when you make factual statements that could be disputed and when you quote work that belongs to someone else.
Here’s an example:
Chicken is the number one protein consumed in the United States, according to the National Chicken Council.
If a factual statement can be verified by multiple sources (such as, “spring is the rainy season in the Midwest”), or if you use knowledge that no one “owns,” you don’t need attribution.
Are Links to Sources as Good as Citations or Attributions?
A link to a source is not an attribution. Why? Because links can be broken, removed, and changed. They are not a replacement for citations. A link to a source does not protect you from infringing on someone’s copyrights. I don’t care what your legal department says. Links are not proper attributions.
Links are optional. Some companies require links to every cited source. I say that’s too much. Include links to sources that you feel would be helpful information or interesting to your readers.
My general rule is to include links only when they really make sense. Like, in the early part of this article, I linked to Moz’s definition of domain authority because I encourage readers to explore this metric on Moz. But I didn’t link out to Neil Patel’s post because, to be honest – and I’m a huge Neil Patel fan – I don’t like the post.
An Exception to the Primary Source Rule
If you are a subject matter expert in your field, you can make factual statements based on your own knowledge and expertise. You probably don’t need to find primary sources to back up your factual statements.
For example, I worked with a medical provider who created an ebook about women’s “unmentionable” problems (stress and urge incontinence). He said, 85% of people who are affected by urinary incontinence are women. When I asked him for a source, he said he estimated that based on his experience. I accepted that because his education, years of experience and other credentials make him a trustworthy subject matter expert.
Now that you’ve read the post, go back and take the quiz again. With a better understanding of primary versus secondary sources and when and when not to include a citation, you should ace the quiz. In an era of “fake news,” take the time to protect your credibility by following these best practices.
Don’t Forget About These Other Content Marketing Best Practices!
Proper citations aren’t the only thing you need to worry about with your content. Take a look at our list of impactful content marketing best practices you need to implement before starting your next strategy.