Some principles for using online sources

It was a long time before anyone explained the idea of ‘peer review’ to me. No one ever explained how to tell if an online source was reliable. I had the idea for several years that something only had to be written by an employed academic- which would make most medieval blogs acceptable sources. Obviously, they’re not. As a service to the community of google-using undergraduates, I present to you:

Why Can’t I Use Everything I Find On the Internet?

The *reason* you can’t use a blog or personal website as a source- even if it’s written by a proper academic, even if it contains lots of scholarly information, like this post on Anglo-Saxon archaelogy by Jonathan Jarrett, is that blogs aren’t peer reviewed. Even the best scholars have stupid ideas sometimes. Sometimes the ideas that we air on the internet are the unreliable ideas that we couldn’t prove in a proper article. The process of peer review makes sure that scholarly work is reliable and well argued- even if some scholars think a given article is wrong, peer review makes sure that there some basis for its propositions, and that all the proper referencing and primary sources are used, so that other scholars can see where the argument came from, and can agree or disagree with it on the basis of evidence.

In the sciences, peer review doesn’t stop people falsifying results or just plain getting things wrong- but it drastically decreases the chances of that, and it makes sure that they give all the information so that someone *could* follow along in their footsteps and find out where they went wrong. In the same way, humanities review doesn’t make something ‘right’- but it does make sure that proper academic procedures have been followed, so that the reader can follow up the evidence and see where the author went wrong. Non-scholarly sources don’t do that- pop history doesn’t footnote or dissect primary sources; blogs throw out crazy ideas without backing them up; personal websites can be just a collection of cool trivia.

While we’re at it, there are several reasons that Wikipedia cannot be used as a scholarly source- first and most importantly, you don’t know who the hell wrote it and if they have any idea what they’re talking about. Secondly, because Wikipedia doesn’t allow ‘original research’, it presents the very *opposite* of good scholarly dialogue: for the purposes of Wikipedia what is ‘true’ is what is generally known to be true, not what can be argued from evidence. Some articles have useful bibliographies and they can sometimes provide a great background introduction to a subject, but never, ever, use the Wiki article itself as your source.

What can I use on the Internet? – Finding reliable online sources

The sources I linked to yesterday, from the Online Medieval & Classical Library, are all online copies of peer-reviewed books. The website tells you the publisher and date, so you know it is reliable and you can track down hard copies if you need to.

There are several excellent collections of resources for medieval studies online, like the Labyrinth, hosted by Georgetown University; the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, hosted by Fordham University; and In Parentheses, hosted by York University, Canada. If you’re just starting to learn Anglo-Saxon, I recommend Old English at UVA, which is put together by Peter Baker as an online version of his Introduction to Old English, and includes a grammar book, an anthology of texts, and helpful exercises. All of these sources are hosted by university websites, which is your key to their reliability. The websites usually give full authorial and editorial information somewhere, although it can be hard to find.

Not everything hosted on a university server equally credible. Not everything hosted on a university server is peer-reviewed, or even scholarly work. Student newspapers, for example, can often be found online, and are most definitely not scholarly sources (although you could use them as primary sources for an essay on student unionism…) University websites may also contain theses and other work which hasn’t been produced by a top-notched academic or gone through rigorous review. You can still use these sources, but you will need to exercise some caution before citing them as The Ultimate Authority. A source that I’ve been using lately is The Electronic Sermo Lupi Ad Anglos, an honours thesis from Florida State U. I’ve been using it because it’s the only source out there which provides a complete transcription of the sermon as it stands in my manuscript, but I’ve been checking it against the published editions as I go (and there are a few errors). When looking at a source that has never been published in hard back, you should find out as much as you can about the author (and in the case of a thesis, about the supervisors) and make sure that they are of respectable standing in the field before treating the source as an Authority.

Other websites also contain scholarly resources, although you have to be more careful if it’s not on a university website. Aside from the OMACL, linked above, there is the Catholic Encyclopaedia, hosted by a suspicious looking religious website. The Encyclopaedia itself, however, is an online version of the 1913 edition, which, I’m told, was the last edition of the Catholic Enyclopaedia to be of any use to historians at all, and you can find that information out by digging around a bit in their ‘making of’ section. Also useful is the Sacred Text Archive, likewise not a university website, but individual texts have the details of translators on them, so you can cite them properly, and look up their details if necessary to make sure that the edition was published by a reliable publisher first. (As you go on in Medieval studies you’ll start to recognise the names of reputable academic publishers- there are a handful of University Presses, as well as private companies like Brepols, Routledge, and others. Awesome tells me to beware of Edwin Miller Press- they often publish theses straight to books, so be aware that their books may not be the product of such rigourous scholarship.)

If you’re working on something and need biblical quotations, the only version of the bible to use for Medieval Studies is the Vulgate. No, not your nice NRSV- very accurate for biblical scholars, useless for medievalists. Unfortunately, it is in Latin, and, despite what the silly website I’m about to direct you to says on its front page, you probably can’t translate it. What you *can* use is the Douay-Rheims translation, a 16th century Catholic answer to the Protestant fad for vernacular bibles. A good online version is on another dodgy religious website, which presents Latin, Douay-Rheims and King James texts in parallel.

Thanks for that! Now, how do I cite a reliable online source when I’ve found it?

academia,snark,history,meNot all style guides have set conventions for citing online resources, (apparently MLA and Chicago do) but that doesn’t mean you can just whack down the URL and leave it at that. You should have all the information which you would have in a printed edition. That means:

* Author/ editor/ translator
* Publisher, if known, in the case of a source taken from hard copy
* Host website (eg, ‘In Parentheses’) and host server (eg, ‘York University’). If, as in this case, there could be two severs with that name, specify ‘York University, Canada’ or similar, as you would with a publisher from Cambridge, Mass. If, as with some of the non-university sites, you don’t know the sever, just put the host website.
* Dates: If you can find it out, the date which the source was put online, and the date you accessed the site, in case something changes. (Don’t put down the time. I once meticulously footnoted ‘2am, Monday the 30th of Whatever, and this caused nothing but mockery from my teacher.)
* URL of host website and of the page or source you used.

You should arrange this information in a format as close as possible to the format you use for citing books, articles, or electronic resources which you’ve accessed through your university library.

I use MHRA style referencing. Here’s an example I constructed for GoblinPaladin the other day, for a source from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook:

source Author if there is one, Source Title, source translator if there is one, in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook , ed. Paul Hallsal (hosted by Fordham University, SOURCEBOOK URL: 1996, accessed DATE.) TEXT URL.

I think my version may contain more information than is stricly necessary, but better to be safe than sorry. For a shorter example, the MHRA Style Guide gives the following example for an online journal:

Steve Sohmer, ‘The Lunar Calendar of Shakespeare’s King Lear’, Early Modern Literary Studies, 5.2 (1999) [accessed 28 January 2000] (para. 3 of 17)

and this for a poem accessed on a full-text database:

E. E. (Edward Estlin) Cummings, ‘maggie and milly and molly and may’ in Literature Online [accessed 5 June 2001]

What Use Are Blogs and Personal Websites, if No One Can Cite Them?

Blogs and personal websites, for scholars, are like having a big rambling conversation around a big table. We’re all sitting around, talking about what we’re working on at the moment. I order a round of beverages and announce that I think there are bondage jokes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If you were there, listening to me pontificate, you might like my idea. I’d quote a few lines to you and you’d think it sounded pretty good. You wouldn’t take it as a perfect argument, though, without going away and looking closely at the text yourself. And if you wanted to talk about that in your essay, you’d go and read some of the articles about sexuality in Sir Gawain, to make sure I wasn’t just mouthing off. If you were polite, and wanted a reputation for being a nice person, you might say in your essay ‘Ms Eccentric suggested to me at the pub that there are bondage jokes in Sir Gawain, and her hypothesis is borne out by my studies…’ By now the argument would be your own, based on peer reviewed research, but it would be polite to tip your hat to me for giving you the idea. If you were writing an article, rather than a student essay, it would definitely not be polite of you to run with my idea without asking me about it first- for all you know, I could be working on an article myself.
Treat blog posts the same way: not as sources of facts, but as places to pick up neat ideas. If something interests you, you can go away and develop your own argument on the topic, and yes, it would be The Done Thing to put a footnote in saying that you first got the idea from a conversation on In The Middle.


4 Responses to “Some principles for using online sources”

  1. Dictionary » Some principles for using online sources Says:

    […] +_) wrote an interesting post today on Some principles for using online sourcesHere’s a quick excerptThe Bible, and sources like the Oxford English Dictionary or encylopaedias don’t need full citations (I think). […]

  2. Kelly Says:

    I’ll be dealing with just these issues before long, so this is a keeper. Thanks a bunch!

  3. JLJ Says:

    I finally got round to reading this. My head was broken from the semester being just over. Nice work!

  4. To the Students of “Myths, Legends and Heroes”: « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] you are going to research using google, can I please encourage you to consider some principles for using online sources before doing so? I know all of your teachers: your lecturer is my supervisor; one of the tutors is […]

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