People as Sources

People don’t just create the sources we use. They are sources themselves. Most of us use people as sources all the time in our private lives, such as when we ask a friend for a restaurant recommendation or ask whether a movie is worth watching. But you probably aren’t using people as sources very often in your assignments–unless you are a journalism major, of course.

In the 2012 Project Information Literacy research report, How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace, employers such as Battelle, Nationwide Insurance, Microsoft, the FBI, the Smithsonian, the Port of Los Angeles, SS&G Financial Services, and Marriott International expressed dissatisfaction with their new hires’ inability to gather information by talking with real people. They’ve found new hires unwilling or unprepared to ask the experienced employee down the hall or the expert across town for information to solve a problem. For instance, one employer has this to say about new hires:

Here’s something we’re targeting in interviews now—the big thing is they believe the computer is their workspace, so basic interactions between people are lost. They won’t get up and walk over and ask someone a question. They are less comfortable and have some lack of willingness to use people as sources and also have a lack of awareness that people are a valid source of information…

So getting some experience using people as sources is likely to help you not just with a current research assignment but with your work in the future.

Important: Who’s an “Expert”?

Experts aren’t only researchers with PhDs doing academic work. The question to ask when trying to decide who can be a source is always, who can speak with authority about any part of the subject? And the answer to that question is always contextual, a kind of “it depends.”

People can speak with authority for different reasons. According to the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, a person can have subject expertise (say, having done scholarship in the field), societal position (maybe a public office or another relevant work title), or special experience (say, living or working in a particular situation of interest or having participated in a historical event).

For instance, people who have had firsthand experience living or working with a situation (say, a survivor of school shooting if your topic is on that subject) you are studying can have a unique perspective unavailable elsewhere. And it’s that up-close, firsthand view of the situation that gives them the authority that you and your audience respond to.

Of course, such sources have to be evaluated just like any other. Could they be biased? Like any source, yes. We just have to keep that possible bias in mind as we use the information from such a source. That’s part of exercising the critical thinking that research assignments are famous for producing.

Potentially biased or not, sometimes a source’s firsthand experience can’t be surpassed. And recognizing what they offer can help us open up to diverse ideas and worldviews that we would otherwise miss. Don’t be surprised if this kind of source takes you off in completely new directions with your assignment, ones that turn out to be much more interesting than those you were following before. For many researchers, finding sources that open up a topic like that is one of the most rewarding—and fun—things about doing research.

Some Examples of People as Sources

Research Question Potential Person as Source Potential Person as Source
How are tools originally developed for medicine, geology, and manufacturing used to explore paintings and sculptures? An art conservator who uses those tools that you read about in the newspaper or other source The person who invented one of the tools on the floor of the factory where he works
Why do most people who qualify for food at food banks not ask for food? A local food bank director A person (perhaps a fellow student) who qualifies but does not ask for food at a food bank
How and why do city and county governments brand themselves? An official in such a city or county who has been involved in branding decisions The director of a company that designs branding for cities and counties

You can interview a person as a source on the phone, in email, with Zoom, or face-to-face. You’ll need to:

  • Pay attention when reading other sources so you can identify whom to contact and know what they could have to offer.
  • Prepare by learning enough about your topic so you can ask appropriate questions, know what your expert has done about your topic so you don’t seem ignorant of their contribution, and know how to contact them. You might also want to do a practice interview with a friend.
  • Contact your source to see if they are willing to talk with you and when that would be convenient. Then follow through.

Use good interview techniques, such as trying to put them at ease, using active listening techniques to encourage them to talk, asking follow-up questions, and thanking them at the end of the interview.

Citing People as Sources

Like other sources, people should be cited in your research final product, depending on the citation style you’re using. For instance, in APA style, interviews, e-mail, and other personal communication should not appear in the reference list but should be in your main text only like this: (A. Authorslastname, personal communication, July 29, 2018).

See Excelsior Online Writing Lab for information on how to handle interviews and other communication with people in other styles.


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Critical Thinking in Academic Research by Cindy Gruwell and Robin Ewing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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