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I have now seen several answer writers produce answers without references, get asked to provide references, only to retort that web-sites are unreliable, and anyone could throw one together to support any argument.

Can we come up with an FAQ-style generic answer to this complaint?

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[Parts of this were stolen from @Borror0's answer and Are References Enough?]

Q: What makes a good reference?

A: It is expected that all significant claims should be referenced.

The reference need not be a web-site - it can be printed articles, books, documentaries, etc.

A high-quality reference has, at least, the following characteristics:

  • Comes from a peer-reviewed source.
  • Is either a primary source, or it, in turn, cites its sources, so the primary sources can be tracked down.
  • Supports the argument being provided in the answer (i.e. not out of context)
  • Draws logical and statistically robust conclusions from any premises or data it offers.

Ideally:

  • the reference is widely available for others to inspect (e.g. not behind a paywall, or out-of-print)
  • the reference is not contradicted by similar articles supporting the opposite claim.

The reference need not come from the list of useful sources, but these are widely-respected sources.

Not all references are going to be able to meet this quality bar, but your arguments will be more convincing, and are more likely to receive votes from fellow skeptics when they do.

  • I suggest adding that we expect some form of summary or quotation from the source to help avoid future dead links and the pragmatic issue of trying to hunt down a physical article or book. – MrHen Jun 23 '11 at 17:27
  • Note: This text has been moved to an answer on another meta-question, so this whole question can now be closed. – Oddthinking Jun 24 '11 at 0:54
  • @MrHen, yes, the idea of a summary is good. Note that the word "reference" is ambiguous. It refers to both the document being referenced and the included text that makes that reference (and also the URL that connects them, but that's another issue). I was referring to what makes a good document, as opposed to what makes a good included text. If you know how to make the distinction clearer please edit. (But not here... cont'd.) – Oddthinking Jun 24 '11 at 0:59
  • The former issue is now answered here: meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/868/… The latter is now answered here: meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/868/… - Please show your agreement by voting them up; they seem to be languishing. – Oddthinking Jun 24 '11 at 1:00
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We require references to be of a certain reliability, from a source who has a certain authority on the matter at hand. The goal of such a policy is not to be 100% accurate, as that would be an unattainable goal, but rather to minimize the frequency at which we are wrong.

That policy is core to Skeptics, and it is the reason we feel the site is working. If an user disagrees with that policy, then this site simple isn't for him. Luckily for him or her, 99% of the web doesn't have that policy.

  • Can you clarify what is meant by "we require"? The highest-rated response to my question skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/3179/… is from a Website that, while long-running and quoted by the mainstream media, does not publish its methodology. Should that earn the answer automatic downvotes? – Larry OBrien Jul 1 '11 at 16:49

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