This post is part of a three-part series on referencing scholarly articles. You might also like:
- 9 tips on How to find Scholarly Articles for Free Online; and
- Seven Best Essay Sources you should Cite
You’ve probably used one of these bad essay sources before. Hopefully, you’ve learned your lesson from teacher’s feedback.
Unfortunately, students can get a long way into their degree without learning which essay sources are no-go sources for essays. That’s because university teachers tend to be really bad at teaching students how to find credible sources in essays.
Before I get started, let me quickly answer two questions about what makes an essay source credible:
1. Credible vs Non-Credible Sources
Credible sources are:
- Up-to-Date. Most of your sources should have been written within the past ten years;
- Peer Reviewed. There’s only two sources that tend to be peer reviewed: journal articles and textbooks. Peer reviewed sources are ideal because experts on the topic have read over the sources and certified their quality, reliability and credibility.
- Relevant. Even a good quality source needs to also be relevant to your paper’s topic: there’s no use using an excellent source that’s got nothing to do with what you’re writing about.
2. Why is it Important to use Credible Sources in Research?
These days the internet is awash with bad information. As a university student, you need to be able to show the skill of finding sources that are authoritative and methodologically rigorous. One of the top skills that your degree signifies is that you’ve got the skills to conduct high-quality research. You need to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Okay, let’s get straight into it. Here I’ve compiled a simple list of seven examples of unreliable essay sources which you should avoid referencing at all costs. These are sources that are not credible or reliable sources for essays.
Okay, so here’s the deal. Read Wikipedia. Your friends do, your competitors do, and even your teachers do.
But remember three things:
- It’s been written by anybody. Literally, anybody could have written it. You can go online right now and change the Queen’s Wikipedia page to whatever you like. So, you don’t know how good the source is. It could have been written by a high school student or an Ivy League professor. You just don’t know.
- People change the details on Wikipedia pages all the time. You could be being pranked, lied to, or just getting really average information.
- Wikipedia is a red flag to markers. This rule makes all the others irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that if your teacher sees the word ‘Wikipedia’ anywhere in your essay, your mark will plummet immediately.
Now, let’s get back to talking about what happens in real life: everyone reads Wikipedia. And it’s right the vast majority of the time.
What’s Wikipedia Good For?
Wikipedia functions as a brief, accessible and easy-to-read introduction to a topic. Read it when you want to begin to develop an understanding of the topic. It’s a good source to go to if you don’t have a textbook at hand. But, find higher quality sources to cite in your essays.
Reading Wikipedia is not the end of your research process. You should always, after reading Wikipedia, jump onto Google Scholar and continue your search for credible essay sources. Find articles (or better yet, textbooks) that give general introductions to your topic. Read textbooks on the issue when you can: they were written to be readable by undergraduates. Journal articles weren’t.
By the time you’re ready to write about the topic, you probably have read 5 other more credible scholarly sources on the topic. Cite credible sources, not Wikipedia.
YouTube is used all the time by teachers.
This doesn’t mean you’re allowed to use it as an essay source.
The reason teachers use YouTube is that it’s a really engaging, useful way to deliver information. Teachers find it to be a useful way to teach hard-to-explain content. They are always on the search for usable, motivating texts that might both act as a stimulus for discussion and help students learn.
But YouTube videos in class are just that – a stimulus for discussion. They’re not supposed to be the ‘final word’ on a topic, or even an authoritative and credible essay source. Good teachers present YouTube videos in ways that are followed up with critique and analysis of the content within the video.
Resources used in essays are not like that. The resources you use in essays need to be academically vetted through a process called peer review. Textbooks and journal articles meet that standard. YouTube videos don’t.
3. Google Books
Okay, use the Google Books website. It’s excellent. I recommend you use it regularly to find good quality and credible textbooks. But be smart about how you cite Google Books.
Google Books is an excellent source for finding information from textbooks that are otherwise unavailable to you.
That’s because Google Books actually gives you a sneak peek into actual good quality textbooks. You can read full segments of the books, and if you’re lucky, they’re the exact book segments that you need to learn about your specific topic. It’s an excellent resource!
Use the ‘book preview’ section of Google Books to write your essays. Read the sections of textbooks that are available to you, and paraphrase and/or quote that information in your essays.
So, why is it not okay to reference Google Books previews?
Simply put, why would you reference the book as if it’s a website when you can actually reference the book as a book?
Tip: Cite Your Google Book Previews as Books, Not Websites
When you use Google Books to access information for your next essay, take the time to preview the inside cover of the book and extract the information needed to reference the book you’re previewing as a book.
Here’s an example of the difference between referencing a book as if you read it on Google books versus as an actual book. Both citations follow APA formatting:
|As a Website on Google Books:||Frost, R. (2013). Applied Kinesiology. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?id=nqFmuMIDCGoC&|
|As a Book:||Frost, R. (2013). Applied Kinesiology. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.|
The first citation (as a website) screams “I wrote my assignment purely through Google!” The second citation (as a book) says “I read books to conduct my research.”
Learn the rules of the game. The second citation looks better, is better, and will not throw up a red flag to your teacher. You’ll get better marks.
So next time you use Google Books, cite the book, not the webpage.
4. Essay Sharing Websites
A failable offense. This should never be used as an essay source.
There are websites out there that give you access to previous students’ essays.
There are also websites out there where you can pay someone else to write your essay.
The helpfulprofessor.com website is adamantly opposed to cheating. We believe in playing by the rules, and it’s our mission to teach you the strategies for working within the rules.
We do not, ever, condone using someone else’s intellectual property. This means we’re against the idea of copying a previous student’s essay, and we’re against paying someone to write your essay for you.
Unfortunately, I’m sure you’ve come across essay writing services in your time perusing the web.
Occasionally I have a student who’s done the lesser offense of looking up previous students’ essays on websites like the ones listed above. Then, they actually referenced the essays they read! Clearly, they don’t understand that this is a rule-breaker, and I usually arrange a gentle one-to-one tutorial with them to reinforce how much this is not allowed.
But, please, don’t reference websites that give you access to someone else’s essay. You’ll be in for a world of pain when you get your feedback. In fact, I’d recommend not ever even going onto these websites at all. It’s borderline, if not totally, cheating.
5. Famous Quotes from the Web
Inspirational quotes are rarely if ever, used well in essays.
Students will often cite Einstein, Nelson Mandela, The Bible, The Quran or other inspirational quotes in their papers.
They usually do this to open their essay.
Here’s a simple rule: If you found the quote from a website such as brainyquote.com, or if the quote was found in fancy writing overlaying a mountaintop a forest scene, don’t use it.
Quotes from the internet are far too often:
- Inaccurate. You’ll find that the inspirational quotes you’ve found on the internet are missing. In the world of fake news, anyone can put up a quote and claim it to be true.
You know the saying: 80% of the things you read on the internet aren’t true? Well, I’m sure that so-called fact isn’t true either. But it has its intended effect: don’t believe everything you read on the internet. As a general rule, sources you found via google are to be treated with a touch of mistrust.
If the place where you found the quote doesn’t accurately reference the exact speech, book, or source of the quote – don’t use it.
If you still really like the quote, try to read the original source text and see what the person was actually saying.
- Taken out of context. Inserting one line of a famous speech doesn’t do that quote justice. We all know from political advertisements that political parties grab one phrase from Obama or Trump or Sanders or Clinton or whoever and use it to paint the opponent as a horrible human being. In other words, quotes can lie.
That’s why you need to be able to insert any quotes in a way that involves detailed discussion and analysis of the quote.
Inspirational, attention-grabbing quotes just don’t achieve this goal.
Ask yourself: Did you actually read the page from the original source of the quote? Do you understand the surrounding paragraphs? What’s the quote in relation to?
- Not relevant. It looks terrible when a quote is used in an essay that is not directly related to the essay topic.
Nelson Mandela was talking about apartheid South Africa. If you’re not writing an essay on apartheid South Africa, don’t cite Nelson Mandela.
Martin Luther King was talking about civil rights in the United States. If you’re not talking about civil rights in the United States, don’t reference Martin Luther King.
Even if you are writing about civil rights in the United States, please analyze King’s quote! What was King’s perspective? Why was it important?
I do recognize that sometimes you do need to cite very famous people. Quoting the pope as an essay source might have its place in a religious studies class. Similarly, if you’re actually writing an essay on evolution, go ahead and cite Charles Darwin. But cite these authors in context.
Here’s a solution:
Find a quote or reference to someone who was actually talking about the specific topic you are writing about. If you’re writing about teaching philosophy, don’t cite a quote about education by Nelson Mandela. Instead, cite a key author in the area of Education. If you’re writing about nurses’ bedside manner, don’t cite Jesus. Cite a key medical or nursing scholar.
Then, analyse the quote. What does it mean, and what’s its relevance to your essay topic?
6. Your Teacher
This one needs some explanation.
Don’t Cite Lecture Slides
Firstly, the obvious: don’t cite your teacher’s lecture slides. Lecture slides are something the teacher either:
- Slapped together on Sunday night in preparation for Monday’s lecture; or
- Has barely edited in the ten years since they started teaching that lecture
I’m bracing for some angry emails from teachers about this statement. So I’ll caveat it by saying some teachers did those two things above.
Secondly, citing your teacher’s recent publications is cringe-worthy. Personally, I can’t stand it when my students reference my papers. Most teachers at respectable universities have written several academic papers and book chapters. When a student references my papers in their essays, I cringe. It feels a lot like the student is sucking up to me. It feels like they’re trying to buy marks through a sleazy complement.
There’s one time when you should cite your teacher: That’s when they actually assign their work as a test for you to read. I personally don’t do it because it feels like a teacher is blatantly self-promoting, or worse, self-admiring.
But, I get it. Sometimes a teacher wants their students to learn exactly the content in the exact way they wrote about it in a textbook or academic paper. Sometimes it is genuinely the most accurate and readable source to assign a student.
If the teacher has assigned the text that they wrote as a set reading, I would suggest that you go ahead and cite it as a key essay source. Otherwise, steer clear of referencing your teacher’s publications or lecture slides.
7. Information Blogs that Pose as Authoritative Websites
This is the most common one on the whole list.
In every field there’s a series of well-designed, engaging, and informative websites that every student reads:
- In Psychology it’s Simplypsychology.org;
- In Education it’s Learningtheories.com;
- In Literature studies, it’s Sparknotes.
Sparknotes, you got me through high school English. You marvelous, glorious, intelligent website.
Relegate Sparknotes, simplypsychology.org, and any other informative, excellent websites to the ‘Great source, can’t cite’ pile. Just like so many of the sources on this list, it’s great to read, but not great to cite. Sorry friends, you gotta go to Google Scholar and get journal articles and textbooks or you won’t be moving to the top of the class any time soon.
Have a brainstorm – what’s that great website that you go to in your field as a cheat sheet?
Can you Think of a Site Like this in Your Field?
If you can think of any more websites like this that I haven’t mentioned, please tell me in the comments at the end of this page and I’ll add it to this list.
Here’s some advice: treat all these great topic-specific websites like Wikipedia. Read them. Often. Use them to develop a strong foundational understanding of the topic. But remember: they’re only websites. They’re blogs. Some person – probably very intelligent and accurate – has written that. Yet it hasn’t met the rigorous standards of academic peer review. No one’s checked to make sure they’re right. It could, for all you know, be someone with an opinion and an agenda.
That website – the one that’s informative and engaging and got you through your first year of university – is just like Wikipedia. Mine it for information, then go to Google Scholar and get an actual textbook or journal article to cite in your paper.
If you cite that website as an essay source, you’ll lose marks. Sorry.
If you’ve referenced some of these essay sources before and are looking at this page thinking about how far you’ve come, well done!
Before I leave you, as usual, a quick recap of your essay sources you should never cite in an academic paper:
7 Bad Essay Sources to Avoid | Essay Guidance
- Google Books
- Essay Sharing Websites
- Online Quotes
- Your Teacher
- Information Websites that aren’t News Sources
If you’re new to the university and are guilty of having used these essay sources recently, it’s time to stop! Each and every one of these essay sources will lose you marks instantly and you’ll never make it to the top of the class.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.