Using digital sources

All sources should be evaluated for reliability, accuracy and appropriateness. Online sources often require more careful scrutiny. In the domain of online self-publishing, which includes wikis, blogs, social media and some websites, readers must be especially mindful of information that may be false, private, misleading, inflammatory or promoting hidden agendas.

The Deakin guide to referencing provides information on how to cite sources such as blogs, wikis and social media – but that does not mean that these sources are necessarily reliable, accurate or appropriate.

Always ask yourself:

  • Who is the author or authoring organisation – are they a reputable source and/or might they have an agenda?
  • Is the publication peer reviewed?
  • If your source has no author or date, consider whether this is a reliable source of information. Is a private post that is mere opinion or speculation, and without its own references, an appropriate source of information for your assignment?
  • Is the information up to date?
  • What is the purpose of your assessment task? Is it valid to be sourcing ideas and opinions from social media sites, blogs or wikis? And are you permitted to use such sources in your assessment task? Refer to your unit guide for further details.

Deakin Library

University library databases and University library collections are a good place to start when searching for refereed academic writing. You can also have a degree of confidence in some mainstream online newspapers, journals and government publications.

The Deakin Library resource guides are a great starting point for finding resources in your subject area. You might also like to browse:

Essential Deakin Library resources on using the Library and digital literacy:


How do I reference online sources?

Just including a URL is not enough. Online sources require the same amount of bibliographic detail as other sources. Remember that one of the aims of referencing is to provide readers with sufficient information in order to access your sources.

You may find it difficult to determine all the necessary details to adequately reference an online source. The author, title and publication date may not be available or apparent. If a web document has no indication of its author or organisation, no title or date, it may well lack academic credibility and you should consider this carefully before using it for your assignment.

If you do decide that you need to cite a source that lacks publication details, gather as much bibliographic information on your source as you can – it is always best to provide more rather than less. Many webpages do not have an obvious author, date or even title. Be sure to look in the header or footer for this sort of information, for example, the authoring organisation of the webpage and 'page last updated' or copyright date (often found at the bottom of the page).

Referencing online sources presents a number of challenges for academic writers and referencing conventions do not always provide clear answers, so students should follow these steps:

  • Be careful in your selection of sources. Some online material may be inappropriate for academic discourse – content can often be inaccurate, biased, transient or trivial.
  • Always check your unit guide if there is uncertainty about using a particular source in your assessment task. Consult your unit chair, lecturer or tutor if you still have any doubts.
  • Consult your unit guide for specific referencing requirements and then use the appropriate Deakin referencing guide to format your online sources consistently.

In addition, keep the following in mind:

  • Just as with printed sources, online sources must be cited in a way that allows readers to identify and retrieve them.
  • At a minimum, most referencing styles require you to cite the name and author of the website (if available), the URL or database name, and the date you accessed the site. Sites such as blogs and social media will often also require the date of the post and account name of the author.
  • If a source does not have the information you need, use the details that are available to describe it. If you are not sure, it is better to provide more information about a source than less.
  • While PDFs and many e-books and e-journal articles have page numbers, which can be cited, some online documents do not. Never use the numbers of your printout of such a document, if the online publication does not have page numbers.

Why are there so many variations in referencing online sources?

As you read and research online, you will notice that even within the same referencing style there seem to be variations. Organisations and even departments within one organisation may present their references differently. There may even be inconsistencies among documents within one website. This is because referencing standards for new online formats are still evolving. You will also find that styles vary from unit to unit at Deakin. For this reason, always check your unit guide first to see what referencing style you need to use in your assignments. Then check the relevant Deakin referencing guide. If you are still not sure about how to cite a particular source, ask your unit chair, lecturer or tutor. Or you can email a Language and Learning adviser with the details of your referencing question. Finally, the most important thing is to be consistent in your referencing.

Is Google my best friend or my worst enemy?

Be wary about using search engines such as Google to source materials for your assessment tasks. Search engines provide information ranked by both popularity and commercial interests. You will not necessarily find the best information this way. That is not to say that you can't – you just have to be very careful. Tools such as Google Scholar can also assist to refine results. Perhaps the most reliable sources for academic writing are the refereed materials available via university library databases and university library collections in general. You can also have a degree of confidence in some mainstream newspapers, journals and government online publications. This introduction to using the Deakin Library has many useful tips on effective searching techniques, as does this Library tutorial on evaluating information sources.

Can I use Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is not an appropriate source for students at university to reference. Wikis are collaborative tools that are contributed to by a number of people and their evolution is often rapid and uncontrolled. You may use sites like Wikipedia to find a quick explanation of something, but in general this should be followed up with researching more reliable sources of information for your assessment tasks. However, there may be instances when referencing a wiki is relevant to your research. In all cases, you need to consider whether wiki sources are appropriate and acceptable to include in your assignment. If you are still uncertain, check with academic staff (unit chair, lecturer or tutor).

What is a 'DOI' and how do I reference it?

A DOI is a digital object identifier, a unique identification for online articles and books. It provides a more reliable link than URLs, which can change. If a DOI exists, then it should be added to the reference list entry. A date of retrieval is not required if providing a DOI.

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