Reading critically: checking for reliability

An open book next to an ebook reader

Reading in a foreign language brings challenges at several levels. If your personal issue is dealing with many new words, you will find help in another post. However, the subtlety of academic language is also often a greater challenge to those seeking to bring a higher awareness to their readings, as is often required for academic writing and research. Here you can find some general tips on approaching your sources with a critical eye.

Studying any subject requires extensive reading and research, but it is essential to go beyond simply seeing and understanding the academic and technical words. Unfortunately, in today’s academic publications world, we are sometimes exposed to information that is not reliable.

Those seeking indications for the reliability of a source tend to begin with external clues. The origins of the publication, from the relative standing of the writer and publisher or website to the year of publication, are already helpful in determining if the research is helpful or perhaps detrimental. A glance at the list of references for its appropriateness and comprehensive-ness may be sufficient as well. A poorly designed study (methodology) may also be a strong indicator for research that should be viewed critically, though you may need to be able to justify this. Finally, covert or apparent biases can be uncovered in looking for sponsors and other interests, and are certain strikes against the trustworthiness of a report.

Even if a source passes these tests, you might find internal clues that the information presented is questionable. Within a text, a failure on the part of the researcher to make logical connections or conclusions from his data shows that a paper can not be relied upon, even if the data itself is useful. The links between examples and the points they are supposed to support may not work, as the specific point possibly doesn’t allow the generalization due to being irrelevant or at least not representative.

The challenge to a non-native speaker, however, is often greater, as these and other signs can be hidden in subtle linguistic cues. So what could those be? Here is a brief summary of the most important ones you might come across.

Not all of these, of course, are necessarily indicative of a poorly researched or unreliable text, you will have noticed that some of the latter kinds of language are (in moderation) also common in academic writing as indications of scientific objectivity and openness to counter-evidence. Still, this is the kind of language that is easy to spot once you are aware of it and can give you a good idea of the confidence of the author.

Happy reading!