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Research Papers 101: The concept of *authority* in academic writing

Akropolis by Leo von Klenze,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

First, a history lesson
on rhetoric and ethos/credibility

In 510 B.C., the ancient Greek city state of Athens became a democracy, a form of government that allowed ordinary citizens to collectively make decisions about how to run the state. As different factions arose in the democracy, along with political leaders who wanted to sway the citizens to support their competing visions for how Athens should be run and what actions should be taken in matters such as trade, justice, diplomacy, and war, a group of itinerant teachers called the Sophists came to Athens and said that for a fee they could instruct those who aspired to lead and persuade in the art of Rhetoric, or effective persuasion.

Aristotle (after Lysippos),
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A rhetor (speaker or practitioner of rhetoric) who had received sophistic training -- so the sales pitch went -- would know how to use the most effective style, delivery, and arguments to move the audience (the people listening) to think or act in a different way. The philosopher Plato pooh-poohed the study of rhetoric/sophism, comparing it to fancy cookery that pleases people -- unlike philosophy, which he compared to medicine in that it can actually heal them. (Another accusation Plato liked to lob at rhetoric/sophism was that it allowed unscrupulous rhetors "to make the weaker argument appear the stronger.")

Plato's student Aristotle, by contrast, decided the study of rhetoric needed to be taken seriously, and he composed a long treatise called The Rhetoric which incorporating many ideas from both Plato's philosophy and the teachings of the Sophists. Famously, Aristotle divided rhetorical appeals into three categories -- logos (logic), ethos (credibility), and pathos (emotions) -- pointing out that even very logical rhetoric can fail if it doesn't engage with what people care about (pathos) or if the rhetor isn't considered believable or trustworthy (ethos).

OKAY, WHY THE HISTORY LESSON? Ethos is important in the context of college research because it helps explain why sources have differing levels of ethos/credibility in different contexts.

It's also important because there are many situations in our own lives where we will need to demonstrate/prove our credibility to an audience. (College writing is just one of these situations!)

Some reasons we (as rhetor) might need credibility:

  • You need to convince your professor that you researched the topic.
  • You need to convince your teammates to play hard.
  • You need to convince a potential employer that you're qualified.
  • You need to convince a college to accept you as a student.

Some (audience) reasons to evaluate source credibility:

  • Should we believe this politician's claims about their record and plans?
  • Is this TV ad trustworthy in its claims about the product?
  • Is this Tiktok video a reliable source of information about this topic?
  • Does this article I'm citing have enough authority to satisfy an audience I'm trying to persuade?

In academia (what's this?), another word commonly used as a synonym for credibility is authority.

For example, you may get instructions for an assignment that ask you to find "authoritative sources".

(Note: This is not quite the same thing as "scholarly sources," but -- as we'll see -- authoritativeness is a key reason why citing scholarly sources is a requirement in most college writing assignments.)

In 2015 the Association of College and Research Libraries (what's this?) produced a set of guidelines for academic librarians called The Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.

The first of the six frames the ACRL wants librarians to help students understand in order to be information literate is Authority is Constructed and Contextual.

What does it mean to say "authority is constructed"? It means it's a social construct, or a shared understanding among some people.

Among scholars and scientists (and in academia in general) the word authority connotes traits like expertise, rigor, and professionalism, and the sources typically considered to have the highest level of authority are scholarly sources.

Scholarly or not, context is important

However, whether a source is scholarly or not, the usefulness and authoritativeness of any given source is going to depend on the context.

Contextual factors could include: what is the source's relationship to the topic? What claims do they have to expertise? What kind of argument are you using the source's information as evidence to prove? And: who is the audience evaluating your argument?

(NOTE: A group of non-academics at a diner might have very different ideas, or shared understandings, about what makes sources of information trustworthy or authoritative!)

Determining a source's authority in context : some factors

What is
the source's ... ?

to the topic

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Hint: Are they primary, secondary, or tertiary? (see next page)


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What credentials do they have? Have they written about this topic before? (see scholarly sources page)

Validity as

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Is the type of evidence adequate/suitable to the claims being made?


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Who is your audience? A layperson? Scholars in a particular field? What are their expectations/standards/shared understandings?

Other systems for evaluating sources


Evaluate Sources Like a Pro by Lindsey Gumb used under a CC BY 4.0 license 

This method of evaluation is based on lateral reading, a research technique used to quickly fact check a claim.  Learn more about The SIFT Method (The Four Moves).

Infographic from SIFT (The Four Moves) by Mike Caulfield used under CC BY 4.0 license 


1. STOP: Are you familiar with this source and its reputation?  What is your information need?  Is a quick check on the source enough,perhaps for a re-post, or am I using this for research and need to fact check every claim?

2. INVESTIGATE THE SOURCE: Know what you are reading.  Open another tab and search for the publication title or the author's name.  What do others say about this source?  (Not just what they say about themselves!)

3. FIND TRUSTED COVERAGE:  Do other known or better sources make the same claim?  

4. TRACE CLAIMS, QUOTES, AND MEDIA BACK TO THE ORIGINAL CONTEXT:  Go back to the original source.  Information in its original context is best for your own interpretation and evaluation.