Endless it were to sing the powers of all,
Their names, their numbers; how they rise and fall:
Like baneful herbs the gazer’s eye they seize,
Rush to the head, and poison where they please:
Like idle flies, a busy, buzzing train,
They drop their maggots in the trifler’s brain:
That genial soil receives the fruitful store,
And there they grow, and breed a thousand more.
—– a stanza from The Newspaper by George Crabbe
Social media, such as Facebook, twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, e-news platforms, blogs etc., are great tools to share information. It has been harnessed by humanity to not only “spread the word”, but also to share opinions, experiences, expressions and new ideas at an amazing pace across the globe.
On the social media, we generally consume information by three different means: read an article, listen to an audio clip or watch a photograph or a video. They have indeed elevated our experiences and are now an important part of our daily lives. As with all technological tools, social media too has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the main disadvantages of the social media is the authentication of an information. The problem of authentication becomes increasingly important when the news that we are consuming is related a vital situation (example: information on coronavirus epidemic). Therefore, it is critical that we identify the source of information that we are consuming.
In this blog let me give a brief outline on the kinds of source any information is based on.
I will be directly quoting from an excellent book titled – The Craft of Research (now in 4th edition)
There are 3 kinds of sources from which we consume our information:
To quote the authors of The Craft of Research (page 87, 4th edition) :
Primary sources are “original” materials that provide you with the “raw data”
or evidence you will use to develop, test, and ultimately justify your
hypothesis or claim. What kinds of materials count as primary sources vary
significantly by field. In history, primary sources are artifacts or documents
that come directly from the period or event you are studying: letters, diaries,
objects, maps, even clothing. In literature or philosophy, your main primary
source is usually the text you are analyzing, and your data are the words on
the page. In arts criticism, your primary source would be the work of art you
are interpreting. In social sciences, such as sociology or political science,
census or survey data would also count as primary sources. In the natural
sciences, reports of original research are sometimes characterized as primary
sources (although scientists themselves rarely use that term).
2. Secondary sources
“Secondary sources are books, articles, or reports that are based on primary
sources and are intended for scholarly or professional audiences. The body of
secondary sources in a field is sometimes called that field’s “literature.” The
best secondary sources are books from reputable university presses and
articles or reports that have been “peer-reviewed,” meaning that they were
vetted by experts in the field before they were published. Researchers read
secondary sources to keep up with developments in their fields and, in this
way, to stimulate their own thinking…….”
These are books and articles that synthesize and report on secondary sources
for general readers, such as textbooks, articles in encyclopedias (including
Wikipedia), and articles in mass-circulation publications like Psychology
Today. In the early stages of research, you can use tertiary sources to get a
feel for a topic. But if you are making a scholarly argument, you should rely
on secondary sources, because these make up the “conversation” in which
you are seeking to participate. If you cite tertiary sources in a scholarly
argument, you will mark yourself as either a novice or an outsider, and many
readers won’t take you—or your argument—seriously.
This response may seem unfair, but it’s not. Tertiary sources aren’t
necessarily wrong—many are in fact written by distinguished scholars—but
they are limited. Because they are intended for broad audiences who are
unfamiliar with the topics that they address, they can sometimes oversimplify
the research on which they are based, and they are susceptible to becoming
outdated. But if you keep these limitations in mind, tertiary sources can be
valuable resources: they can inform you about topics that are new to you, and
if they have bibliographies, they can sometimes lead you to valuable
A majority of the information that we consume in social media is a tertiary source. When we consume information, we need to always ask questions such as:
On what kind of source is the information based on ?
Does this information cite appropriate source (primary, secondary or tertiary) ?
These are vital questions because it helps the reader to make a judgement on the information that they are consuming. For example, if you are reading an opinion piece or watching a video on e-news platform, the authors or the speakers will be making an argument as part of their opinion. Generally, this argument will be based on the three kinds of sources that I have quoted above. An important task of a serious reader/watcher is to seek the reference behind these sources, and identify the category of the source on which the opinion is based upon.
In the above quoted text on tertiary source, I have boldened the sentence related to bibliography to emphasize the importance of referencing. Given that hyperlinking is easy on social media, we should expect the author or the speaker to furnish their sources as part of their write-up or presentation.
Doing research should not be seen as an esoteric endeavor of human species. In fact, in this time and age of social media, it is not only our responsibility but also a necessity to do research on what we consume. So how should we do research ? To answer this, let me conclude by quoting the preface of the book again (page 13, 4th edition):
“…..Most current guides acknowledge that researchers rarely move in a straight line
from finding a topic to stating a thesis to filling in note cards to drafting and
revision. Experienced researchers loop back and forth, move forward a step
or two before going back in order to move ahead again, change directions, all
the while anticipating stages not yet begun. But so far as we know, no other
guide tries to explain how each part of the process influences all the others—
how developing a project prepares the researcher for drafting, how drafting
can reveal problems in an argument, how writing an introduction can prompt
you to do more research.”
To know more about how to do research, I strongly recommend you to read “The Craft of Research”. It is a rare combination of primary, secondary and tertiary source for this age.