Fact-Checking 101

Fact-checking a writing project can be a daunting and time-consuming task, but no one wants their book to be known for (and even potentially scuttled as a result of) its questionable research. Just ask Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works and How We Decide, both of which his publisher elected to stop selling after persistent challenges. As a former reference librarian and a current project editor, I wanted to share a few tips. Wikipedia Is a Great Place to Start Your Research (Just Don’t Stop There)

Some don’t consider Wikipedia a reliable source, but this isn’t necessarily so. Wikipedia can actually be a great place to begin your research. It’s comprehensive and easy to access, search, and find links to related info. The key is to learn where the facts in the main article are taken from. Most wiki articles will have notes and references at the bottom of the page, often with active hyperlinks. You can check to see if these are citations to reputable sources and go directly to the original source.

So, What Is a Reputable Source?

Well, as in life, what is reputable is in the eye of the beholder. But there are a couple of key characteristics you want keep in mind.

A reputable source is generally one or more of the following:

  • A well-known and generally respected publication, information-gathering site, or organization (e.g., JAMA, Internet Movie Database, Christian Science Monitor)

  • A government institution or agency (e.g., The National Archives in the UK, Seattle Office for Civil Rights)

  • From a department or an individual affiliated with an accredited academic institution (e.g., Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy; or Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality, who teaches at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business).

  • A primary source: a document created during and/or by someone who actually witnessed or was involved in the event/subject in question. For example, South, the account of the Endurance’s disastrous journey to Antarctica, by expedition leader Ernest Shackleton.

Be wary of sources that are the work of individuals not affiliated with a reputable organization, or are strongly biased toward a particular policy or viewpoint.

In addition, regardless of the source, you’ll want to be sure the information is current (or at least updated) and hasn’t been superseded by newer research. Of course, some older sources are appropriate, so long as the information is still relevant. An interesting example of the need to refer to the most current sources is the changing status of the Brontosaurus. It’s difficult to track whether this is considered to be a distinct dinosaur species or a misnomer for the decidedly less well known but (until recently) more scientifically accurate Apatosaurus unless you’re referencing the very latest research. Who would have thought established thinking about dinosaurs could change so frequently?

 

Utilize Your Public Library

There are highly educated professionals who are paid (by you, via your taxes) to help you with research. Your public library has someone just waiting to help you with your query, and believe me, they like doing it. They chose it as their calling in life! Bigger libraries will often have language specialists to help with basic translation questions. And the nice thing is, nowadays you can access library services in multiple ways: in person, by phone, email, or live chat—in many cases, twenty-four hours a day. In the Pacific Northwest, where Girl Friday is headquartered, we’re lucky enough to have several great library systems with robust virtual help desks. You can find out how to reach them at The Seattle Public Library’s Ask a Librarian or the King County Library’s Ask KCLS webpages. Chances are, your local public library has something comparable.

And don’t forget that your library often provides cardholders with three veritable troves of virtual information: links to trusted online resources, subscription databases, and e-books.

Most major public libraries maintain a list of reputable online sources, broken down by subject. These sites are vetted by research professionals to be current, accurate, and useful. And the lists are checked and updated regularly, so you can be reasonably sure that what’s there is reliable and trustworthy.

As far-fetched as it may sound, not everything is accessible via the Internet. Much of the most valuable information is accessible only through subscription-based databases. Luckily, public libraries often subscribe to a number of these databases, which you can access for free if you have a library card. The type of information you’ll find in subscription databases includes archives of major newspapers, magazines, and trade and academic journals, as well as subject dictionaries and the like (e.g., Oxford Companion to American Military History), consumer and health information, and much more. These are often underused but very, very helpful. Here’s The Seattle Public Library’s Articles and Research page, which has both their subscription databases and links to reputable websites all in one spot.

Your library likely also has a sizable collection of e-books and downloadable audiobooks. Sometimes the only way to research or verify a fact is to read through a book on that topic. I’ve been amazed at how often I’ve been able to find a book cited somewhere (like Wikipedia) available as a download in my library’s collection. In some cases, I was able to download the book directly to my computer and check facts from a primary source without ever leaving my desk.

Fact-checking can feel like a chore, but it’s one you shouldn’t neglect, as even the most well-respected authors can (and will) be taken to task by sharp-eyed readers. Don’t be one of these guys!

 

Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions

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