So, today I want to talk about how to judge whether a potential source of information is reliable. I’m primarily going to approach this from an academic perspective, as sources used for academic purposes generally require the strictest standards. For my qualifications on this subject, I would like to submit ten years of higher education, two associate’s degrees, a bachelor’s degree, and enough additional course work that I’m 21 credit hours away from a second bachelor’s and a year long thesis away from a master’s degree. I spent a lot of time in academia, guys, so I feel qualified to talk on this subject.
Anywho, judging sources can be a bit of an art, depending on what subject you’re researching, and what the purpose is. For example, if you’re just looking for your own personal curiosity, you can get by with less scholarly sources. Additionally, there are some subjects that have a very limited amount of sources available, and you may have to use a lesser source because that’s all that exists. So what I’m about to say is more of a general guideline than hard and fast rules, because there’s always an exception.
Here are the things you want to look at when judging a source for reliability.
I’m listing this one first because if you physically have the book or journal in your hands, it’s the easiest one to judge. The publisher’s logo is generally somewhere on the cover or spine, so you don’t even have to open a book to judge it by its publisher. Not all publishers are created equal, and some are more reliable than others. Some publishers will put out anything to make a buck (Llewellyn, I’m looking at you), while others are more about serious research and information. Generally speaking, books from a university press will be more reliable for academic purposes. Good examples of these would be Cambridge or Oxford University Press. Other publishers may be hit or miss. Self published works are generally not recommended because they require absolutely no vetting or peer reviews. For Kemetic sources specifically, watch out for various new age publishers. As I mentioned, Llewellyn is notoriously unpicky (although I do like a couple of their for beginners books for basic introductions to various subjects). Weiser is a little better, but not much. Especially look out for Bear and Co–they do a lot of conspiracy theories, so they are the most likely publisher to put out books about how the pyramids were made by aliens, and that sort of thing. Entertaining, but not useful for research purposes. Also, watch out for Dover, who generally publishes books and materials that are public domain, which leads us to our next thing to watch out for:
Generally speaking, you want the most recent sources you can get your hands on. Our knowledge is constantly expanding, and we know a lot more about the world today than we did 100 years ago. Anything that’s public domain is almost certainly going to be outdated, as the copyrights have run out on it. That said, this is one area where the subject you’re researching may affect the reliability of your sources. If you’re researching something medical, you’ll likely be able to find sources dated within the year, and you wouldn’t dream of using a source from the 1970s. If you’re researching Sumer, you might be grateful to find a source from the 1970s because there hasn’t been much research done in the field recently (what with all the ruins and relics being in Iraq) and what research there is largely focuses on archaeological methods. Luckily for Kemetics, Egyptology is a field that hasn’t fallen out of favor, so we do have more recent sources, many of which correct misconceptions from the past. This is part of the reason why Budge is so problematic–most of his work is like 100 years old (no seriously, he died in 1934, and most of his work was originally published between 1900 and 1920). We’ve learned a lot in that time span, and the world is very different, which brings us to our next point.
You don’t want biased sources. A biased source will almost always put a spin on the subject that favors their own viewpoint, and will usually throw out any data that disagrees. This is why so many of the very old sources are bad–they tend to approach things from a strongly Christian worldview, as well as an imperialistic one that focuses on the superiority of the culture of the writer. In Egyptology, this results in the ancient Egyptian people being looked at as ignorant savages, and filters their philosophies through a Christian lens. For example, older sources will look at the Egyptian gods and say, well, they didn’t really believe they were separate gods, they believed they were just facets of one god. Or, they’ll look down on them because they worship gods with animal forms. Their own religious views prevent them from seeing things objectively. Most modern sources account for their own biases, and try to present their findings in a neutral manner. That said, you still need to watch out for religious bias, especially with internet sources. I can’t tell you how many pages I’ve seen that demonized Heqet because they were coming at things from an extremely conservative Christian angle. I’m not trying to bash Christian sources, mind you, but there is a strong tendency towards bias with Christian publishers and authors. Speaking of which….
This one pretty much goes without saying. A good source is written by someone who is an expert in the field. That’s not to say that Joe Schmoe from Minnesota hasn’t done his research, but the professor with a doctorate and several degrees in Egyptology who has actually worked on digs and translated directly from tablets probably knows more. That’s not to say all professors know their shit, but it’s more likely. (I have known some really terrible professors in my time.)
And finally, you want to look for
Yes, that’s right, we’ve come full circle. Let’s say you’ve verified that it comes from a good publisher, it’s recent, unbiased, and the author is an expert in their field. Or, let’s say you’re unsure about something, like the publisher and author–maybe they aren’t bad, but maybe they aren’t the best either. The final thing you want to check for is what sources they used, if any. Are there footnotes or in text citations? What’s the bibliography read like? Is there a bibliography at all? Unless you’re reading someone’s findings on an original dig they performed themselves, there should be a bibliography, and it should generally include decent sources. If the only thing in it is Budge, it may not be a good a source. That said, many even scholarly sources will still include Budge in their list (I’ve heard that while his translations are inaccurate, the reprints of hieroglyphs are quite good, actually), so don’t freak out if you see one title of his amongst 30-40 other sources. Also don’t freak out if half the sources are in French or German–a lot of historical research is done in these languages, and there often aren’t translations.
Hopefully this will be useful for new kemetics in search of info (or college students working on papers, even). I do want to reiterate that these are not hard and fast rules. There may be exceptions–I’ve seen a book or two on Egyptian mythology that had no sourcing and was pretty dated, but still accurate. There are also some subjects where you might have to use sketchy sources. For example, if you were doing a paper on ancient aliens, Bear and Co would have several things that would be essential for your research. But generally speaking, academic and scholarly sources are going to be your best bet, especially if you’re trying to do scholarly research. Also worth noting is that your local librarian can also help you find and vet sources, particularly in a university library. Don’t expect them to do all your work, but they can be helpful if you’re not sure.