Making Best Use of Sources

When citing evidence for a claim or argument, it is important to be able to back up the credibility of that evidence – to provide context, information about the source, and a sense that the fact or facts cited can reasonably be considered accurate. In addition, readers will often want to follow up and learn more about cited evidence – to use it in other contexts, question it, or provide additional supporting evidence. To facilitate all of this, it’s important to make appropriate use of links to external sources.

Sources should, as a matter of best practice, be linked if you are:

  • Quoting someone or something.
  • Citing a particular fact – like a statistic, law, or study result.
  • Paraphrasing someone else’s idea or argument.

It can also be useful to link sources if you are:

  • Assuming a certain level of knowledge – for example, by referring to the name of a particular concept (e.g. Moore’s law) – that may not be shared by your entire audience.
  • Using unusual or specialized terminology.
  • Referring to something likely to be of interest to your readers beyond the discussion at hand.

Stylistically, there are several ways that you can integrate links into your claims. Whatever approach you choose, you should try to be reasonably consistent within each discussion – rapid changes between styles can be jarring to readers.

  • You can integrate links in the way that online journalism generally does – as hyperlinked sections of text. This is generally most appropriate when the source linked is fairly short, or the entirety of the source is what you are referring to.
  • You can integrate links in parentheses at the end of a claim (or within the claim, though we largely find that this can be jarring within such short snippets of text), hyperlinking the name of the source (e.g. ‘NASA’, or ‘Smith et al.’). This is generally most appropriate when you are referring to a specific part of a source, as it allows you to provide a pinpoint reference like a page number without interrupting the flow of a claim.

While linking sources at all can make a huge difference to your discussions, linking the right sources can be just as important. For example, linking to a site that lacks credibility – or has a reputation for inaccurate reporting – can undermine your entire argument. If you’re not familiar with the reputation of a site you’re considering linking to to back up one of your claims, it’s worth googling the site itself, and particularly checking a non-partisan fact-checker to see what they think of the site. (No-one wants to be the person who accidentally cites The Onion as a source!) Generally, this is most important when trying to establish evidence for claimed facts – and less important when simply trying to establish that some people hold a belief about the world.

Sources are also more useful the more accessible they are! For example, sources that are behind a paywall, or require an academic login, might well be academically better, but if your readers can’t access them, that’s not much use! Consider using an alternative source, or also linking to a summary, if one is available. Similarly, sources in the language you and other participants are using in the relevant discussion are going to be much more useful to everyone involved! If they’re not available, consider linking through a translation site.

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