Most online writers do not have a journalism background. In college, I majored in Entrepreneurship, and my career roots in nonprofit work. However, no matter our background, all writers can improve our content by following a major journalism principle: cite your sources.
Citing sources isn’t as simple as linking to the first Google result you find and calling it a day — not all sources are created equally. Writing online requires learning how to vet your sources and only use high-quality, verifiable information. After all, you don’t want to be responsible for unintentionally spreading misinformation, do you?
When I’m not writing online, I’m usually creating strategic plans for nonprofit clients. The first section of every plan includes a detailed evaluation of the social issues the organization confronts. This section requires detailed research with copious statistics. While writing the problem statement, I typically cite 10 or more primary sources. Each source adds credibility to the argument presented and solidifies why the organization exists. Writing online is no different. Adding information from verifiable sources increases the credibility of every post.
For example, everything so far in this post is based on personal experience writing online and for clients. However, every university and most major online publications (including Medium) require citations to improve credibility with the reader. Consider this explanation from the Poor Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale University:
If there’s one fundamental misunderstanding that many student writers have about acknowledging sources, it’s that doing so lessens the impact of the writer’s own contribution. In nearly every case, the effect will be the opposite: it’s when you most clearly signal your debt to sources that your own thinking becomes most visible.Poor Center For Teaching and Learning
Citing sources brings credibility and accountability to all writing. When considering stories for distribution and curation, Medium requires rigorous fact checking:
Is it rigorous? – Are claims supported? Sources cited alongside stated facts? Does the story hold up to scrutiny?Medium Distribution Standards
Citing sources is not only good practice; it ensures your content stands out from the rest. Thankfully, finding high-quality sources of information is easier than ever. It only takes a few minutes to find information that enhances your content. But, before you go linking to the first thing you find, it’s important to know what sources are worth using and which you should avoid.
Types of Sources
There are two types of sources: primary and secondary. While each has its value, it’s almost always good practice to find and cite primary sources. Here’s a quick explanation of each type:
Primary Source: Original information directly from the source
A primary source is “pertaining to or being a firsthand account, original data, etc., or based on direct knowledge.” If the information is original to the source, it’s primary. Basically, a primary source provides information it created or compiled directly to the public.
For example, the United States recently released updated census data. Most news outlets across the country reported on the updated numbers, so searching for information about the change is everywhere. However, the primary source of information in this example is the U.S. Census Bureau. It is the government agency responsible for collecting, compiling, and releasing information. If you are writing about census data, the U.S. Census Bureau is the only primary source.
Secondary Source: Analyzing and compiling collected information
A secondary source is “pertaining to or being a derived or derivative account, an evaluation of original data, etc., not primary or original.” If the information is a compilation or analysis of other data, it’s secondary. Secondary sources are everywhere. While some secondary sources are worthy of citing, it’s always best to find the primary source when available.
There are many examples of secondary sources discussing the census update. So many. While each article comes from a reputable news outlet, it only analyses and explains data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. If you’re quoting an individuals’ explanation or take-away, by all means, cite the source (in which case it would likely be a primary source). However, if you’re writing about the data, then return to the primary source.
Where To Find Sources
The internet is full of primary and secondary sources. As we’ve established, not all sources are created equally. Some sources are far more reputable and trustworthy than others. Let’s look at a few examples of primary and secondary sources (and some that are both).
Like the U.S. Census Bureau, many federal, state, and local governments have websites with detailed information. For example, The School District of Philadelphia shares detailed statistics on its website. Want to know about current graduation rates in the city? The School District of Philadelphia is your primary source.
Government publications aren’t only primary sources for statistics and data. The City of Orlando and its utility company, Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC), recently asked Orlando residents to conserve water. OUC treats water with liquid oxygen, which is in “critical supply” due to the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations. In this example, the City of Orlando and OUC is the primary source of information.
Government publications are rarely secondary sources, though it is not impossible. The United States Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides health-related resources on multiple topics. The latest State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables (published in 2018) contains information cited from 43 sources. In this instance, the CDC report is a secondary source because it complies and analyzes the unique data.
Published Journals and Research Studies
Approximately 2.6 million peer-reviewed science and engineering journal articles and conference papers are published every year. That is an incredible wealth of information just waiting for a citation. A team of researchers conducting unique research or compiling other primary data sets typically writes each article. They begin with a hypothesis and use the data to prove or disprove their theory.
I frequently use journal articles when writing nonprofit strategic plans. Depending on your search criteria, some may appear in Google results. Though, tools like Google Scholar and LexisNexis are quicker ways to find relevant and credible primary information.
Journals and research studies can be either primary or secondary sources, depending on the research involved. If the study conducted original research, like the July 2020 study on race among COVID-19 patients in Boston, it’s a primary source. However, if the article compiles existing data, like the January 2021 study on the effect of cleaning products during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, it’s a secondary source.
News outlets may fall into a few different categories but are typically national and local newspapers or news stations. In most cases, a news outlet is a secondary source of information because it reports on something happening. For example, take the OUC water notice mentioned above. The Orlando Sentinel’s coverage of the notice is a secondary source because it reported on the press conference.
There are some instances where news outlets are primary sources of information. Primary sources may include investigative reporting and compilation of original or exclusive data or an exclusive interview with a notable person. For example, because ABC News exclusively interview President Biden about Afghanistan, ABC News is a primary source of President Biden’s remarks.
Quotes are often tricky to track down. When looking for quotes, you should always find the original source to cite and verify its authenticity. For older quotes, this can be difficult, and, unfortunately, secondary sources are often untrustworthy for quote verification. That said, using property-cited and verified direct quotes are a great way to add credibility and authenticity to your content.
Besides news outlet interviews, there are other types of primary sources for quotes. For example, Write Now interviews with authors contain direct and original quotes. In that case, each Write Now interview is a primary source of the verifiable quote. Likewise, the two quotes from Yale University and Medium above were cited with their primary sources. However, my content is a secondary source because I am repeating it from the original. You should almost always avoid secondary sources of quotes due to the lack of verification and authenticity.
Sources To Avoid
While secondary sources are in abundance on the internet, most are not worth your citation. Here are two of the most common secondary sources and why you should avoid them when researching citations.
There are 31.7 million bloggers in the United States. Across the globe, millions of blog posts are published every single day. All of this content creates a seemingly endless supply of secondary information ready to corroborate and enhance your writing. However, not everything online is worth quoting or citing. In fact, most blogs are better left ignored when researching sources.
While many online publications are starting to encourage or require citing sources, the vast majority do not. Only 37% of blogs cite their sources, leaving far too much of the internet’s content unusable for research.
While this article is in the internet minority and cites sources, everything I’m presenting is a secondary source. Instead of taking my word for the information presented and using it in your work, you are encouraged to click the links and use the original primary source material instead. The same is true of not just this article but most blog posts on the internet.
Wikipedia, et al.
Wikipedia, Statista, WolframAlpha, and other similar websites contain a wealth of information. Each site contains data, stats, quotes, and research from all over, making them appear to be one-stop-shops for finding sources. However, all of these directories are highly-polished secondary sources. Wikipedia tells users it is not a reliable source and to exercise “special caution” when using Wikipedia for research projects.
The great thing about Wikipedia, et al. is the websites properly cite primary sources. If your content research lands you in one of these locations, follow the citations to the primary source and cite it instead.
How To Cite A Source
Ok, we’ve spent a lot of time looking at the types of sources and where to find verifiable and credible information. Now that you have all that juicy research ready to include in your writing, it’s time to cite it properly. There are two ways to cite research online: inline links and footnotes.
The most common and accepted form of citing a source in an online article is an inline link. Originally called hyperlinks, inline links date back to the early days of computing. An inline link connects two pieces of information: the one you’re currently viewing and another. In addition to properly citing and crediting sources in your content, inline links have a general benefit to search engine optimization.
The other way to cite sources online is through using footnotes. While this method is far less common than inline links online, there is an aura of formality contained in footnotes. I use footnotes when writing strategic plans and occasionally use them on Medium.
Generally, when using a footnote, add the superscript number of the note following the sentence or paragraph containing the cited information, like the example here.1 Then, a corresponding number at the end of the article contains a complete citation to the information.
There are several ways to format a citation. I prefer the APA Style, but the choice largely depends on preference (when self-publishing) and any requirements a publication may impose.
Here is an example of the APA Style citation for the ABC News interview with President Biden referenced earlier in this article:
ABC News, & Stephanopoulos, G. (2021, August 19). Full transcript of ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos’ interview with President Joe Biden. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/full-transcript-abc-news-george-stephanopoulos-interview-president/story?id=79535643
With the wealth of information on the internet, writers need to ensure everything we create includes properly cited, high-quality primary sources of information. It only takes a few minutes to research information that corroborates and adds credibility to your online writing. When searching for sources, remember, not all sources are created equally. Go forth and cite your sources.