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Using electronic 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, the traditional publishing protocols can no longer be taken for granted. Readers must be especially mindful of information that may be false, misleading or promoting hidden agendas.

Always ask yourself:

  • Who is the author or authoring organisation – are they a reputable source and might they have an agenda?
  • Is the publication peer reviewed, or has it been referred to in peer reviewed literature?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • Are you permitted to use, for example, social media sources in your assessment task? Always refer to your unit guide first, as the use of some source types may not be permitted.

For webpages the URL can provide some indication of a website's purpose:

.com = commercial site

.org = not-for-profit organisation or advocacy site

.net = site from a network organisation or an internet service provider

.edu = higher education or other education institution

.gov = government site

Perhaps the most reliable sources for academic writing is refereed material available via university library databases and university library collections in general. You can also have a degree of confidence in some mainstream online newspapers, journals and government publications.

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 access to your sources.

In addition 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 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 see the conventions on citations with No Author and No Date under your required style within the Referencing Guide.

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 discerning 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 Deakin referencing guide to format your online sources.

In addition the following should be taken into consideration:

  • Just as with printed sources, online sources must be cited in a way that allows readers to identify and retrieve them.
  • It is important to maintain as much consistency as possible between the referencing of print and electronic materials in an assignment.
  • 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're not sure, it's better to provide more information about a source than less.
  • References should direct readers to the specific information you have used. For example, you should direct readers to a particular webpage rather than to an entire website.
  • Some materials are published in both printed and electronic formats. You should reference the document type that you used.
  • While PDFs and many e-books and e-journal articles have page numbers, which can be cited, some online documents do not. It is important to remember that the page numbers of your printout of such a document should never be cited as the 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 you should always consult your unit guide prior to using the Deakin referencing guide. Then consult your unit chair, lecturer or tutor if there is still uncertainty about how to cite a particular source.

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 – but that is not to say that you can't – you just have to be very discerning. 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 and 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 for a quick explanation of something, but this must followed up with researching more reliable sources of information for your assessment tasks.

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 location 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.

How do I recognise a DOI? A DOI on the Deakin catalogue looks like this.

Electronic sources at Deakin

Electronic sources available to Deakin students via the Library catalogue include databases that give you access to abstracts and/or full texts of scholarly journal articles, as well as e-books, research papers, conference proceedings, reports, newspaper articles and multimedia. Databases contain detailed and up-to-date information in various fields and it is essential for Deakin students to know how to access these materials.

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