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The following represents the community's standing practices (based on meta votes) for citing sources in answers:

Should it be a requirement to cite sources in answers? No, but it is strongly encouraged. Based on the current top answer:

  • If the answer clearly shows its work and fully supports all of its claims from the text, an additional source is not necessary.
  • If an answer makes a claim that cannot be supported entirely by the text, it should have a source.
  • If you are advancing an argument that is not your own, it should have a source.
  • While it is not required to have a source, good and useful answers will meet these criteria.

Unfortunately, a lot of people do not understand how to evaluate research. Thus it is not sufficient to merely say, "provide a source." It is also expected that a good source be given. Aside from questions that can be fully supported by the biblical text, I'd like to provide a reference for users on what constitutes a good source.

So without further ado, what is a good source?

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    Hmm, I'm not sure. I may reject a source that I disagree with on grounds that it is "not a good source"--how do you prevent bias and personal viewpoints from creeping in too much? Does this further marginalize fringe viewpoints? Is that okay?
    – Ray
    Jul 22 '13 at 23:57
  • Those are great questions that a good answer to this question should address.
    – Dan
    Jul 23 '13 at 0:01
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    Also @Ray, do keep in mind that since we don't require sources, we logically also don't require good sources, so this is only meant as a helpful guide - not as 'rules'
    – Dan
    Jul 23 '13 at 0:07
  • Dan, that's true--just trying to get the conversation rolling. And yes, I think your answer does touch on some of these points.
    – Ray
    Jul 23 '13 at 1:24
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    @Ray sounds good. I just didn't want anyone thinking that I'm pushing to require sources. I'm just noticing that most new users don't know the difference between primary and secondary sources, let alone how to critically evaluate research.
    – Dan
    Jul 23 '13 at 3:03
  • I figured this could be a helpful reference.
    – Dan
    Jul 23 '13 at 3:16
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Good sources are:

Reliable

Three factors that have a significant effect on reliability are:

  1. Type of work (published book, blog post, unpublished journal entry, etc.).
  2. Author (university professor, recognized scholar, popular blogger, mega-church pastor, well-regarded rabbi, etc.).
  3. Publisher (academic press, popular pan-Christian/Jewish publisher, publisher associated with a specific religious tradition, website, blog, etc.).

Concerning the type of work, reliable works are published; that is, they are available to the public in some way. Your pastor/rabbi/professor's printed class notes/handouts are probably not reliable sources. However, if these same documents were posted publicly on a course website, they would be considered published for this site's purposes. If you have to post them online in order to cite them for your answer, they are probably not reliable (as we have no way of knowing if your pastor/rabbi/professor is actually the author and if he/she actually produced the documents). Academic works are generally more reliable than popular works, but this also depends on the author and publisher.

Reliable works are generally written by an author who has the reputation of being an expert by his or her colleagues/peers in the subject matter being written about. A Jewish scholar who is recognized as a Hebrew language expert by other experts in the Hebrew language would generally be a reliable source for information about the Hebrew language. An author is generally considered to be even more reliable when other experts still recognize him/her as an expert even though they may disagree with their research conclusions. An example would be Bart Ehrman, who is respected as a great scholar of biblical textual criticism by Daniel Wallace, another expert, despite significant disagreements between the two. Having a conflict of interest is generally thought to harm an author's reliability, but this is generally unavoidable in the field of biblical hermeneutics as many scholars are adherents of the religion(s) related to the biblical texts being studied (and even non-adherents are often considered to have a biased agenda). Even so, when a biblical scholar argues for the interpretation of a text that coincides with the beliefs of a specific religious tradition to which he or she belongs, it is usually best to also find a second scholar who supports this claim, preferably one who is not an adherent of the same religious tradition.

The publisher of a work has a great impact on its reliability. Academic, peer-reviewed journals and books are considered to be the most reliable sources (peer-reviewed by the wider academic community, not just by those who support the views of the journal). Publishers with a reputation for fact-checking are more reliable than those without it. Those with a conflict of interest are generally not considered reliable (for instance, a Lutheran publisher espousing a Lutheran interpretation of a text, or a Watchtower article supporting the translation choice of the New World Translation) unless substantiated by additional sources who do not have the same or similar conflict of interest (when possible). Self-published works are not considered to be reliable, including vanity press companies and any website with user-generated content (which includes others answers on the Stack Exchange network that are not substantiated by good sources).

Verifiable

A source is considered to be verifiable if readers can prove that it is reliable. An easy way to do this is to provide multiple good sources to support an assertion when possible. Granted, sometimes only one person has made a claim. But often a claim can be substantiated by multiple sources. This does not mean that multiple people cite your source. Numerous people can use the same source as justification of a false claim. The popularity of a source should not be confused with its reliability or verifiability.

Along with this idea: if no one can find the source anywhere, it may not exist. This doesn't mean that it has to be easy or free to access, but it should probably have at least been cited by others or discoverable in a public search of some kind.

(Usually) Secondary

Granted, this isn't Wikipedia and we do encourage the treatment of primary sources for biblical texts when possible. But this is mainly for the purpose of translation or determining the best reading of a text, not for making controversial original assertions. Original research should be kept to a minimum. If you're the only person who posits your hermeneutic method or interpretation, this isn't the forum for your new ideas. Go publish it in a reliable publication and submit to the process of peer-review by the wider academic/scholarly community. Otherwise be ready to provide some support for your methodology.

Out There

Yes, asking you to provide sources does make answering questions on this site more time-consuming. But taking the time to research what others have said and to back up your claims makes your answers more valuable to the users of this site and to those who find them via search engines. And you just might learn a thing or two, and perhaps challenge some false claims that you previously held.

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    I'm much more interested in whether I can follow the logic (aka 'show your work') of a source than whether it has some kind of reputation. Generally I'd say original research is easier to follow because it doesn't involve context switches between the source and the answer's logic. The exceptions being when the answer is basically an excerpt from the source and not much else, and when the answer provides an interpretation of the source, explaining the logic, rather than a plain citation. Dec 11 '13 at 20:42
  • @JackDouglas this was just meant as a reference, not a requirement. When I wrote it (in July), I found myself having to explain why a publication by a Christian denomination supporting a stance backed by that denomination is not as reliable without a secondary source not associated with that group. So I wrote this. Given recent activity, I decided to update it with a specific reference to the Watchtower when discussing the NWT :)
    – Dan
    Dec 11 '13 at 21:48
  • To be clear, I think the post is useful and thoughtful, I just think the question of whether OR is good/bad is probably best kept separate from "What is a good source?", though I can see why you might want to keep them together. Maybe I should try answering. If I do, my answer would be basically "A good source is one that shows it's work" (at least for exegesis). Dec 12 '13 at 7:45
  • @JackDouglas before you do that, be sure to read the bullet points I wrote in the question above, I addressed that.
    – Dan
    Dec 12 '13 at 14:44
  • i.e. "If the answer clearly shows its work and fully supports all of its claims from the text, an additional source is not necessary."
    – Dan
    Dec 12 '13 at 14:47
  • That's not my point at all: my point is that a good source will itself show it's work. That's my definition of a good source in the context of exegesis. Dec 12 '13 at 14:48
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    @JackDouglas ahh ok. By all means, add another answer in that case. The more stuff we have to link users to to help them, the merrier :P
    – Dan
    Dec 12 '13 at 14:50
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I'd like to propose we keep things simple. As background, we've already got these easily understood and very helpful guidelines:

  1. Respect the text
  2. Start from the text
  3. Show your work

I wouldn't say that it is "strongly encouraged" to have a source1 if an answer clearly shows it's work for the main line of it's reasoning: in this case sources are entirely optional, but if they are present, the content of the source should also clearly show it's work2 insofar as it is essential to the main line of reasoning of the answer.

In other words, I suggest we treat exegetical sources in exactly the same way we treat the reasoning in the rest of the answer. A good exegetical source is then one that shows it's work, and:

  • is integrated into the logic of the answer (with summary/interpretation/explanation where necessary)
  • optionally has a longer and more detailed argument beyond the cited text that is useful for further research (but not essential for understanding the answer)

With this framework for judging exegetical sources, it does not matter at all whether the source cited is secondary or primary. Original research is by no means discouraged.

For factual sources on the other hand, I agree with Dan's answer completely. We should treat factual claims and sources differently to exegetical reasoning and sources.


1 Except for factual claims essential to the reasoning, for example in the footnote here

2 I've made this case before in a different context here on meta

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  • Good stuff, +1 from me - this makes perfect sense for exegetical sources
    – Dan
    Dec 14 '13 at 16:38

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