A recipe for disaster: 4 research sources to avoid in your writing

A recipe for disaster: 4 research sources to avoid in your writing

Posted by Tom Wall
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Strong research is the backbone of strong copy. Without it, there is nothing anchoring your words to the truth. This is something you have to be aware of when starting a blog. Not all sources are created equal. At best, disreputable sources indicate lazy journalism; at worst, they completely undermine the validity of your writing.

In an age of ‘alternative facts’, when relying on a research source, it’s important to question its credibility:

  • Who is the author?
  • How recently was the source produced?
  • What is its purpose or intention?
  • Is it something my audience will value?

A source must always be provable and relevant. Too many discreditable sources spoil the broth. If they’re based on unfounded research or speculation, reconsider their use, and avoid the following four sources at least 99 percent of the time.

Bad eggs make terrible omelettes 

Lego egg 

Found a pithy quote or statistic to verify your claim? Handle with care:

Personal blogs and accounts

Rule:  On the internet, everyone is a writer. But that doesn’t mean every opinion is valid, no matter how persuasive the argument may be. Unless the author has referenced their own research, there is nothing to separate their work from the infamous monkey with a typewriter.

Be wary of posts on social media too. They’re incredibly tricky to verify. Fake news continues to circulate the web and it is often indistinguishable from the real thing.

Exception: The author is Elon Musk or another credible authority. Credibility is your number one ally here. If the quote comes from their personal website or verified social media account, it’s likely to be a considered opinion – which is okay as long as you clearly distinguish between fact and opinion and don’t blur the lines between truth and fiction

If in doubt, ask yourself: what would a disingenuous claim do to the author’s reputation? Donald Trump continues to act as a huge, shiny example of lost integrity. Look for articles and papers that have been through corrective processes or peer review, and consider how the quote in question would impact the author’s professional standing.

Contributor websites

Rule: Treat sites that accept sponsored or unverified content with caution. Even reputable magazines such as Forbes and Entrepreneur publish articles from unregulated contributors. If a writer makes an unreferenced remark, do the legwork yourself and confirm its validity.   Those who remember Stephen Glass will understand the importance of fact-checking every single article.

Exception: Any website or article that you’ve fact-checked yourself. Forbes and Entrepreneur still publish plenty of credible authors. As long as you take the time to validate claims made on contributor websites, you’ll improve the value of your own writing.


Rule: ‘Wikipedia is the first place I go when I’m looking for knowledge…or when I want to create some’, says Stephen Colbert.

Basing your research on a site that pretty much anyone can edit is like asking a five-year-old to drive you to the shops. It’s a car crash waiting to happen. Use Wikipedia as a starting point or supplement for your research, not a foundation.

Exception: Properly cited Wikipedia articles are a goldmine for primary and secondary research sources. Scour the references at the bottom of the page for genuine industry insights.

Unauthorised biographies

Rule: The clue is in the name. If the subject doesn’t approve the author’s story, you can’t authenticate the text. Even if the book includes a bibliography, an interviewee’s recollection may be unreliable.

Kitty Kelley is notorious for her celebrity exposés. But who can say they aren’t just pure conjecture? If you’re set on using an unauthorised quote, ensure a credible author has attributed it to a credible source.

Exception: Certain unauthorised biographies may represent an unabridged version of the truth. The work of The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward certainly makes a strong argument for this. His books and articles, based on deep background sources, are an example of credible but non-attributable sourcing. As a reputable journalist, with a history of gaining intimate access to government officials, Woodward’s biographies are far from libellous.

In these circumstances, relevancy is always key. Ask yourself: is the author a credible figure? And can I trust the research sources in their book?

Use fresher ingredients

Choosing research sources is like choosing the right egg

A primary source is often better than a reported one. These come in a variety of forms, including:

  • Interviews with live experts
  • Company literature
  • Data and analyst reports
  • Surveys from reputable companies
  • Reference books
  • Government agencies and official organisations
  • Letters and diaries from the original author
  • Public speeches

Use your subject’s own words to eliminate potential misinterpretation. You shouldn’t be afraid to include controversial quotes, just make sure what you’re reporting is true. Careful research leads to persuasive writing. As long as you validate claims and attribute them to the correct source, the rest of your work will fall neatly into place.

A pinch from here, a pinch from there

Serious journalists aim for accuracy, timeliness and objectivity. Reputable magazines and newspapers will insist on at least one and, in many cases, two primary sources for every fact or assertion in an article.

In marketing, too, authenticity and credibility matter. After all, if you want to be believed, you’ve got to be believable. Good research and good sourcing is therefore the foundation of good content writing.

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