I dislike the idea that only "scholarly sources" can be credible

We should be fully capable of judging credibility for ourselves

March 13, 2021

Yesterday I had to write a paper for one of my classes. Being a computer science major this is a rather rare ocourance since the classes I usually take have a much different structure than those of most other classes. But because universities are set up the way they are I have to take the occasional class that has nothing to do with what I'm actually studying (which wouldn't be such a bad thing if it weren't for the fact that tuition is most often charged on a per-credit basis).

So I wrote a paper comparing Cuba's crippled version of the internet to the free internet we enjoy in the United States which should be standard for all people. In this paper I found myself talking about HTTP, HTTPS, and other internet protocols. Now I'm a computer science major who manages his own website, these are the sorts of things that I learn about in my free time, This is the sort of information that I can pull easily out of the top of my head and frankly it would be concerning if I couldn't, so you'd think I'd be able to get away with not citing any sources right? No not really, I chose not to take that risk and looked up some random textbook to add as a citation for that section of the paper. Did I ever read a word from this textbook? No, but it was more than safe to assume that this textbook contained the information I was giving. I could have easily looked up a random website and any search engine would have come up with dozens of sites that would have given the same information, heck I probably could have picked out something from my own site that would have had the information I needed, but none of these would be considered "scholarly sources" despite them all containing factual information. It was better for my grade to cite a "scholarly source" that I didn't read than it would have been if I had cited an accessible yet factual source that I did.

But of course if I had wanted to cite some random website I technically could have, I had to write the paper using MLA format and MLA does have a standard for citing random websites. There are many niche things that are only occasionally relevant to certain work for which MLA does not have a defined way to cite, one example would be Cuban law. If you are writing a paper that deals with Cuban law, which of these would be the better source for information, some "scholarly article" or the actual publicly available government documents outlining Cuban law? It would obviously be the actual laws rather than some American professors interpretation of those laws. Of course I don't speak Spanish so I would have been unable to cite Cuban law anyways but even if I could the gods of MLA would not have allowed it because I am just a lowly undergrad.

Of course the academic world's insistence on using "scholarly sources" has become as magnified as it currently is is due to the internet. My dad likes to talk about a library research class he had to take when he was in college. In this class he had to go through countless books and encyclopedias to find random facts like Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Everything that he had to look up for the project in that class could be found within seconds on the internet today, and while no such class exists in any school today the academic world self-affirmatively is reluctant to accept how easy it is to learn these days.

I'm of course not telling you to just use Wikipedia for everything, it has similar problems (it just favors unreliable news content instead of unreliable academic content), you should always be wary of the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect and seek to find things written by people who know what they're talking about. What many people fail to realize these days is the fact that someone running their own independent website is much more likely to know what they're talking about than some journalist who is writing an article on a topic they never studied, and this website will likely be much more accessible to laypeople than a pay-walled academic article with questionable motivation. With some time and effort you can find people outside these systems who you can rely on to give you good information. Everyone is an expert on something whether the world choses to believe it or not.