fighting the lack of good ideas

authority issues online

Ars Technica had an article recently [] discussing the prevalent issue of plagiarism amongst students, especially those in college. And a question was raised concerning authority in electronic resources. This is an issue I have had to deal with in the past, though I have found it somewhat amusing to hear teachers discuss authority in documentation – because I grew up just enough before the electronic era to think first in terms of paper and bound materials and how to judge their quality.

The prime example teachers use is that you can’t quote the encyclopedia as a scholarly source – it’s merely a handy compendium of scads of information, but is not, in and of itself, scholarly. The real scholarly sources are found in places like the Association for Computing Machinery‘s Communications, or the American Psychological Association‘s journals. Publishings that take a great deal of time to verify that not only are the materials published of good quality, but that articles discussing research are properly cited and documented.

I had a paper to write several years ago on comparing AMD’s x86-64 architecture and Intel’s IA32 architecture for the companies’ CPUs. Sources like Tom’s Hardware Guide were helpful to see real-world comparisons between the competing products, but the true sources of authority on the products were AMD and Intel themselves. I printed large chunks of the manufacturer’s technical documentation to backup conclusions I made in my paper.

Similarly, citing a post-graduate research paper on caching techniques is substantially more authoritative than citing Billy Bob’s Blog where he rambles-on about how that 64K L1 cahce on his processor is better than the 128K on yours because he’s really just a fanboy. Authoritative sources, generally found on .edu, .gov, and .org domains, though .com domains can be also, are hard to find because there is too much of a noise-to-signal ratio overall on the internet.

The biggest boon to the internet is also, perhaps, its greatest drawback: anyone – anywhere, anytime – can write anything they want on any subject; they can write on any subject even when they don’t know anything about it, or refuse to come to a rational conclusion from the available evidence. I love to hear people’s opinions a lot of the time – it’s the beauty of a free society that we can have differences of opinion. However, backing-up an opinion with data is far more impressive than just having an opinion.

I have an opinion on lots of things that I don’t necessarily share with lots of people because I can’t back-up those opinions with evidence of any kind – they’re sometimes just personal preferences without any specific reason.

However, I also have opinions on topics that I do share with lots of people because I can support my opinions and conclusions with data. Whether or not you come to the same conclusion I do is irrelevant, too – so long as I present the data to you for your consideration. In fact, some of the time I would argue that divergent conclusions can be drawn from the same data. I have, on occasion, done exactly that, too. When the available data doesn’t preclude one conclusion, or demonstrably favor one over another, I have sometimes made multiple conclusions in essays because picking one over the other wasn’t an honest treatment of the data.

I’ve strayed from my main thesis, so let me sum it up. Authority of sources isn’t assured by just one factor – author, publisher, host, length, etc – but rather by directly linking to the data used to produce the conclusions made by that source. No resource stands on its own as an authority on any topic. In order to establish credibility, any resouce must cite where their data came from – either through some kind of bibliography in the case of a paper, or experimental results, or that the resource is maintained by the people who designed and built what they’re writing about.

I wouldn’t place much faith in a rant against Ford by someone who has never driven or ridden in one since they have no data to back up their claims; though I might accept some of their claims if they were based on other people’s experiences.

The real question becomes, in my mind at least, how can authority be determined? After all, I could write some essay, link to a bunch of sources, and then others could use my paper as a scholarly source. But all of my sources could be unreliable opinions written by people who also just want to become known as authoritative sources.

I think the real means of determining authority needs to come down to the following factors: 1) is the article written in an intelligent form? 2) are the sources cited of an authoritative nature? 3) has the author written anything previously that can be considered authoritative? and 4) would someone who is a known expert in the field (perhaps a professor of the topic) agree that the source is not some crackpot?

Anyone who wishes to be taken seriously needs to be able to write in an intelligent manner. That doesn’t necessarily mean that what they write needs to be constructed only for others in the field to understand, nor does it mean that they have to express their expansive vocabulary and write in a convoluted fashion to be intelligent. Textbooks designed for 1st graders aren’t written in a complex form, but are intelligent – they speak to their audience at a level their audience can understand.

If the author has written other articles previously, it can help to read – or at least skim – his other writings to see if they’re also written in an intelligent fashion.

If the author is writing about something that someone you know has experience in (perhaps even yourself), would they agree with your conclusion that the author is worth-while to cite?

If you noticed, I skipped #2 on my list because it seems to create a recursive descent into determining the authority of the source at hand. Well, it does, but only initially. For example, if you have never read anything about security, you might start with David Kahn’s The Codebreakers. And then you’d look at the bibliography to see where he got his data from to write his book. After a cursory examination of his bibliography, and especially after reading the book, you’d have a good idea of where to look for other good authors on the topic of security. Bruce Schneier would pop up in your search. As would authors like Kevin Mitnick. Establishing authority based on cited sources is a skill that you can learn; probably you can learn it very quickly.

Learning to cite authoritative sources, and to skip those that aren’t is a time-consuming process early-on, especially for people who were never taught at a young age to use ‘real’ sources from the library, but have always relied on Google. Search engines are great tools, but like any tool, they require skill and proficiency to use well. When I write research-driven articles, I use Google a lot – but I also know how to filter my searches to get to good sources (at least, a higher probability of being good) quickly from using the tool frequently.

However, I also know when I’m hitting a brick wall and I need to go to the library to find what I need. And I’m not too proud to admit when I need help finding that elusive authority to draw from.