What Makes a Source Good?
In any search, you’re going to find a lot of materials that won’t be useful- some may be outdated, some may be irrelevant, some may be inaccurate, and some may be biased. Learning how to assess a source and determine its quality is a learned skill. Here are some tips:
Is it relevant? Is the source mostly about LGBTQ concerns, or is there just a hint of LGBTQ content? Although it is sometimes very useful and interesting to read a text through a “queer lens”, searching for implicit contextual hints, you may realize that you’ve wasted time if the source is really mostly about something else.
Is it authoritative? A scholarly article should be peer-reviewed. A scholarly book should be published by a legitimate academic or LGBTQ-related press. All non-fiction print sources should contain a list of citations, as well as author credentials. Many books and movies are listed on LGBTQ media lists, and the really excellent ones sometimes win prizes, which will be visibly listed on the item. Websites should be updated regularly and have a clear “about me” page that tells you about the creator(s). Blogs and social media forums should be maintained by people within the LGBTQ community. A simple test to determine if a source is authoritative is to find out who the author or creator is. Are they themselves LGBTQ? If not, how do they know enough about the community to speak with authority? Have they done in-depth research?
How is it biased? A historical source should be fairly objective and contain facts and analysis. Memoirs or opinion pieces will be subjective, but if they contain offensive moralizing, they are likely not useful in terms of researching queer identities- unless, of course, the bias within the piece is an anecdote by a queer person remembering how someone treated them. All media contains some sort of bias, because a human being created it. Your task is to discern what the bias is and how that might have shaped it.
Is it current? This topic evolves rapidly because queerness is a social phenomenon. A book about trans* identities that was groundbreaking ten years ago may be woefully outdated now, because many new gender identity terms have emerged recently. While many older materials may still be quite useful, it’s important to note the item’s date and keep it under consideration as you read or watch.
Is it considered a classic? On the other hand, many much older materials are considered classics in the queer community. Memoirs, theory, and fiction can all have staying power. If you have seen an older source cited a lot in recent articles or books, it may be a classic. Again, various LGBTQ media lists are a good place to search for these.
Is the reading level appropriate? When you read the introduction, are there a great many concepts that leave you confused? You may need to put that source away until you’ve advanced a bit. There’s no shame in that- it takes a long time to digest theory and there are a LOT of theories! Alternately, if you start reading and feel bored and unchallenged, that source may be too lower-level.
Have you ever noticed how at the end of a book or scholarly article, there are sometimes several pages of citations? You can use these to your advantage! Bibliographies are a record of what the author read to formulate their arguments and understand historical context. By looking at the citations, you may find interesting and relevant resources, as well as big names in the field.
Part of the magic of the Internet is that anybody can publish their content. But this also means that there are many, many sites that are offensive, contain inaccurate information, or are purposefully misleading. If you are searching for LGBTQ content, you will likely stumble on sites that express negative opinions about queer people. Sometimes, a site can look legitimate and you could be fooled by inaccurate content, such as medical or historical misinformation.
If you are visiting a government, corporate, or nonprofit website, look for a mission statement or “about us” tab. They should have clear information stating what the website is for and who runs it. If you are on a blog or community forum, there will usually be an “about” tab that might have a blurb about what the person or community stands for. If not, just browse through their content and see if they make any claims about morality, medical information, or history and include citations.
Research tips written by Charlie McNabb and last updated 12/30/2013.