Using the Best Sources

I’ve been doing a series of articles for Spaceflight Insider recently, and it’s been a challenge sometimes trying to find the information I want. Some of this is a natural side effect of writing about the space industry; some of it, curiously enough, is from having too much information to work from. When you’re working in a data-rich environment, how do you know which sources are worth using and which ones should be avoided?

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Whenever you’re writing about a complex technical subject, the closer you can get to original source documents–plans, technical manuals, official websites–the better. The reason original sources are so important is simply because the people creating them had the most direct knowledge of the topic you’re researching.

In addition to source documents, it is also helpful if you can speak with individuals who actually designed or built a product or read their notes from the design/construction process. They will also have the most insight into detailed, off-the-beaten-path questions you might have simply because they were there and know why things were done a certain way.

Ask an expert

Depending on your topic, your subject matter experts might or might not be alive still. Are there individuals you can contact who worked closely with the inventor or who have studied their work in depth? Those would be good go-to sources as well.

Can’t find anyone living who worked on a product? Try living people currently working on it or studying it.

Or maybe you can take a leap of faith and use information from a blog maintained by a professional in your field of interest. Another source to consider are other experts in the field and what sources they trust for reference.

Read the news

I’m partial to technical journals and industry-specific news sites that have a known following or reputation for accuracy because their primary audience is other industry professionals who know BS when they see it.

More general news outlets might or might not get things right–the more technical the subject, the closer things lean toward not–but sometimes they’ll have interviews with prominent individuals in the field who do know what they’re talking about. Information from those individuals is worth considering.

One cheer for Wikipedia

Wikipedia is crowdsourced by a bunch of people who might or might not know what they’re talking about. However, having written Wikipedia articles from time to time, I can tell you that the mysterious editors who watch over the site will flag as suspicious any article that is insufficiently cited from reasonably credible sources. So while Wikipedia might give you a lay person’s understanding of a topic, the sources that the articles cite can be more useful.

Again, the closer your research gets to first-hand sources, the better off you’ll be.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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