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Scanning through my newsfeed recently, a headline caught my eye. It linked to a blog post covering a topic I’ve been researching for a client, and the study it cited is just what I need to prove our point.

But… not so fast. Although the post was published just a couple of days earlier, the data supporting the author’s argument was outdated by years. Also, there’s no byline attached to this particular post and it’s featured on the blog of a company I’ve never heard of.

None of these problems necessarily mean the author’s conclusion is wrong or the underlying data is incorrect, but a savvy reader should be circumspect.

Why? This feels a lot like milled content masquerading as true thought-leadership.

If you are trying to establish your brand as a thought-leader, relying on weak sources of research to make your point isn’t going to bring you closer to that goal. In fact, it can set you back because it undermines your credibility.

I come from the world of journalism, which places a high value on getting the facts right. There’s no substitute for sound editorial judgment, whether you’re writing for a brand or a media outlet. The same principles apply.

What are these principles? When researching your next piece of content, ask yourself these five questions before citing any data, statistics or expert assessments.

1. Is it published by a respected source?

There’s a lot of great information out on the internet, but there’s a lot of junk too. Be selective about the sources you quote. There are many disreputable websites and blogs, so believe the adage: “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”

As a rule of thumb, I prefer to source media with strong reputations for journalistic integrity. If it’s reported by the BBC or The Wall Street Journal, I’m comfortable citing it because I know the information has been thoroughly vetted. If it’s an industry perspective, I want to see the data corroborated in the top trade media.

Still, there are plenty of reliable new media websites, and many I trust in addition to the journalistic powerhouses. TechCrunch and TechTarget are two trusted websites in the tech space (an industry I cover frequently), and you can be sure every industry has at least two credible new media outlets covering it.

2. What are the author’s credentials?

Any post worth citing will name the author and include a short bio. The writer doesn’t have to be a household name with known expertise on a topic – for example, Warren Buffett about investing – but his background should show extensive experience or research on the subject. If you’re not certain, check the trade publications for any past contributions by the writer, and also review his background on LinkedIn.

3. What is motivating the author and publisher?

Every publication has a bias, and of course, brands will play up their own perspectives on a subject. Be careful, though, of subjective viewpoints. If you do use them, mention the bias in your post, and be sure to give opposing arguments equal space. Be especially careful about repeating data points from studies cited in posts with an obvious bias. Take the time to review all the data and conclusions from the original study to eliminate the risk of cherry-picking.

4. Is the data cited recent?

Thanks to advances in technology and communications, and to globalization, facts and opinions can change with astonishing speed. As a result, avoid quoting studies older than 12-18 months. Most research institutions will update studies annually, and you’ll usually be able to find more than one organization researching the same topic.

However, there are a few studies worth citing, even though the timeframe might sit far outside this window. The U.S. Census, for example, is only conducted once every 10 years. And I do make exceptions for highly reliable sources, such as the Pew Research Center or McKinsey, who produce dozens of studies each year on a wide range of topics.

5. Can you link to the original research and verify facts from other sources?

Always review the original data before citing. It’s the only way to ferret out bias and confirm the reliability of statements. This is the beauty of the web: with a little effort, you usually can visit the original source and at least obtain the researcher’s executive summary to verify its credibility.

Remember that good research takes time. It’s worth it. If your content stands up to intense scrutiny, you will build credibility and establish your position as a thought-leader.

(Photo by RyanMcGuire via Pixabay)