How will you know if the author of a publication is ‘authoritative’ and her/his conclusions are ‘credible’? Basically we have three indicators for an author’s credentials:
In the early stages of research we are looking for publications to focus our research questions or to read up on unfamiliar topics. When we find a suitable article or book, we need to know more about the author(s):
An article in an academic journal will include details on the author's position and affiliation. Citation databases such as Web of Science and Scopus use this information to help you identify an author. For a demonstration watch the video Web of Science Core Collection: Author Search (5:12). You can use this free form to search for any author in Scopus Preview.
Look for details about an author’s background at the start or end of an article (organizational liaison, educational background, work title, research program membership, professional awards and experience, etc.). Books tend to highlight the author’s background on the cover. Edited books usually list the contributors’ backgrounds. Locating more information about the author’s background should be easy via internet, Google the author's name and add ‘bio’ or ‘cv’ to the search. Academic institutes often provide curricula vitae for their academic staff on personal profile pages.
To establish if a researcher has a (declared) interest in research or whether he/she has a (commercial) interest can be derived from the author’s extracurricular activities. Advisory roles to commercial companies, to political movements and parties or state financed bodies may(!) be an indication of bias.
Young researchers may not have a long track record of publications, but may offer fresh insights to a research problem. More senior researchers may offer you earlier and later publications on the same topic that are of interest. The publication track record tells you how much experience a researcher has in a particular field. Citation statistics (how often a publication was cited by others) may tell you about a publication’s role in the ‘academic debate’ (being popular and/or being controversial).
Book reviews can be used effectively to assess the role of a book in a particular academic debate as central or marginal.
Information may have a particular bias in favour of ideology, political or commercial interest. Assumptions on the basis of a political, social or cultural background, which are not made explicit in a publication may have an impact on the conclusions. Emotional expressions, opinions which are presented as facts or the use of stereotyping should alert us to biased analysis or conclusions. In all cases a healthy scepticism is warranted.
‘Lying with statistics’ is an expression that is used to describe the use of statistics out of their original context in order to match a purpose for which the statistics are not suited.
Finally, things can get heated in an academic debate and academics may respond with accusations that discredit an author. Also these reactions should be carefully evaluated for factual foundation.