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Authority: Home

This guide will help you better understand authority in the context of research and information and provide you with methods of evaluating an information source to determine its authority.
Last Updated: Feb 23, 2021 2:26 PM

What is Authority?

Authority, generally, represents the right to give orders, make decisions or have control over something. In information, a source that is authoritative contains credible, reliable evidence and conclusions typically from some sort of expert in that area. In truth, it is a rather complex aspect of information to assess.

Constructed and Contextual

Authority is constructed and contextual meaning that we as humans, members of societies, cultures and systems, create authority and that it changes in different circumstances. 

According to the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education:

Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required. There is no simple tool to tell you whether or not a source is authoritative or not.

There are a multitude of strategies you can take to judge the authority of a resource and many have evolved over time, as a person's information need has changed. Within this guide, you will find information about many different pieces of authority in addition to the the various voices present within publications. You will also dive into the peer review process and become acquainted with several ways to evaluate information.

Traditions of Authority

Graduates and faculty at the UB Educational Opportunity Center's (UBEOC) 44th Annual Commencement on May 24, 2017 in Slee Hall

Academic

In academia, authority is given to those individuals who have achieved certain levels of education through study, research, application, and experience with the pursuit of of exploring and expanding knowledge in their designated discipline.

Those with the highest levels of achievement have attained a doctorate in their field or fields.

For some academic disciplines, a Master's is the terminal degree, representing the highest degree available.

Those with academic authority are expected to have  and demonstrate their expertise in their subject area by engaging in discussion and research with others in their field to build and discover knowledge.

Check for academic authority by looking for an individual's educational background, published works, position at a credible academic institution and curriculum vitae (CV).

Photo credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

A photograph of a Caucasian man with a name tag that says expert.

Subject Expertise

Individuals who have expansive knowledge in a certain area are subject experts.

This type of authority can be attained through a variety of methods depending upon the discipline: study, certification, training, application and experience all build someone's subject expertise.

In an academic setting, an esteemed faculty member in the Department of Psychology will have broad knowledge of the discipline, but will be a subject expert in a particular area within that field.

A lawyer whose focus is on Intellectual Property has authority on the intricacies of this particular type area.

Subject matter expertise in academia is a criterium for selection on peer-review panels and other review or oversight positions.

Image attribution: "Hello my name is Expert" by guybrariang is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A photograph of an open newspaper on a wooden table next to a hot cup of tea

Professional Journalists

Newspapers, news websites, magazines, and other news outlets that employ professional journalists offer reports of current events based on fact and supported by evidence. Professional journalists strive to adhere to a set of ethical standards that include truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability when disseminating information.

Not all news outlets are the same. When reading the news, start by researching the news outlet and the journalist to find out more about each. Do not be afraid to look into the funding of the news outlet or the training and experience of the journalist.

Image attribution: "Newspaper and tea" by Matt Callow is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

US Capitol, home of Congress

Government and Organization

Research and reports from official government offices and credible organizations are authoritative.

Such reports are created by these institutions' researchers and experts with their own academic and professional credentials. Some examples include the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime's Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, professional organizations such as the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute's data center's various industry reports, and reports and publications from organizations like the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.

 

Image attribution: "Home of the US Congress" by Jessica Rodriguez Rivas licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Trusted Voices

Other Types of Authority

A photograph of a first hand interview with a man in Cannes.

a First Hand Report

You have likely learned about primary sources before. They may come in the form of artifacts, poems, recordings, photographs, testimonies, and many more. First-hand accounts from people who have experienced an event, lifestyle, etc. are authoritative and invaluable sources of information for researchers. They offer information on the experience and perspective that a researcher on the outside may not be aware of.

First-hand accounts in research are gathered in larger quantities to build the bigger picture for analysis.

Image attribution: "Interview in Cannes" by zoethustra is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A photograph of a person using their phone to write and send a tweet.

a Tweet

Twitter and other social media platforms can be great sources of information, misinformation, entertainment, and even academic discourse.

Much like the first hand reports and early news reports, tweets sometimes provide us with the very first reports of breaking news from those individuals at the scene. They offer a snapshot perspective that together with other reports, time, and analysis can provide a full view of an event.

Scholars and professionals alike often take to Twitter to engage in conversation on the latest studies and trends in their fields. This can be a great way to discover what some of the latest debates and developments are within your discipline.

Image attribution: "Tweet Up" by MDGovpics is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A photograph of a lego person dressed as a plumber

Call in the Professionals

Authority applies to all trades and crafts as well. A certified cosmetologist is expected to have a thorough knowledge of their trade. A licensed plumber has the training, skills, and expertise to address issues within their field with authority.

This also applies to the publications specifically for these areas. Trade and professional magazines and books offer authoritative information for those in a particular field.

Image attribution: "Plumber" by Ryan Howerter is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Key Aspects of Authority

What is the context? 

Consider your research topic and what types of information you need. The given context and audience define the characteristics of authoritative evidence. This can be difficult to determine when you first begin research, but talking to your professors or a librarian can help. This is one of the reasons many assignments require certain types of sources.

Use the right tool for the job! 

How a source is used determines its authority. The practitioner must always consider the contextual evaluation of sources.

For example, a YouTube video from a professional repairman would be an authoritative source to consult for making repairs to a home appliance. Your urban planning research paper on green space in urban environments might require authoritative data collected by researchers from city governments.

Whose voices are being left out of this conversation?

Recognize that traditional notions of granting authority might hinder the diversity of ideas and worldviews that get heard and shared. Check out the World Views and Voices page for more.

What are you bringing to this conversation?

Evaluate sources using a variety of criteria in order to cultivate a skeptical stance and self-awareness of your own biases and world views. Check out the Evaluation pages for tips on this and how important you are to the scholarly conversation.

It’s not all relative!

One of the challenges of this concept is falling into subjectivity. However, no matter what the context, there are going to be better and less good sources.

Source: PALNI Consortium Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education: Frame: Authority Is Constructed and Contextual

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