Today a librarian, on behalf of her students, asked other librarians how they handle the issue of a student who is a self-taught expert in an area “for example, a sophomore taking 20th Century World History might be an expert on military tactics and therefore not have any outside sources to cite for some parts of her paper.” They wanted to know if is there a way for a student to indicate this (for instance citing herself as the source) that would eliminate the need for a conversation about sources after the paper has been turned in? So for everyone who has heard me rant about authority, here is how I replied:

Regarding self-taught “experts” (I’m putting this in quotation marks for a reason and not because I’m one of those kooky air quotes people who puts everything in quotation marks)… I tell my students I don’t want them to use as a source anyone whose number can be found in their own cell phones. If I were writing an article on your topic for Smithsonian Magazine or the New York Times or The American Journal of Public Health, would I call this person as an expert? If your answer is yes, then by all means hit that speed dial and revel in the delight that you know someone famous in the field you’re writing about and be sure to ask the person for suggestions of more sources you can use in your research.

Even the example of the student who is an expert on military tactics—is that someone I’d call if I were writing an article about the subject? Does this student get calls all the time from the Pentagon asking for advice? If I did decide to use something from this student I might refer to him or her as an enthusiast, but probably not an expert. In this case, I would probably only ask for the opinion of this enthusiast or hobbyist and I would label it that way. More likely what I might do in the case of the student with interest in military tactics, is ask that student which expert I should look up or contact or what the best resources are for the topic. Who is at the forefront of research in this area? Who is making the most advancements in the field? We don’t get to be called experts until we truly are the best in our fields.

While I’m on the subject of experts, I will say that there are many examples of student work from elementary up to undergraduate that are posted on the web. No matter how fancy or serious these look, these people are generally not experts either. Consider that a first semester freshman in college has had maybe four or five more classes than a senior in high school—still not enough to make an expert. Even a senior in college may be writing research for a class in his or her first history class taken in college because that person is a chemistry major and wasn’t required to take any history. Look for someone who has finished school and has been working in the field for some time. For your paper, you want to cite the BEST research not just whatever you can find first.

What a great conversation between the students and their librarian!


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