What is Authority?

Authority is a type of influence recognized or exerted within a community.

Different questions require different answers and sources of information. You wouldn’t ask your dad about the molecular structure of caffeine (unless he’s an organic chemist) just like you wouldn’t ask your chemistry professor about the latest barista job opening on campus.

The same is true when you’re conducting research, regardless of whether it’s for a class assignment or for a personal or professional interest. You want to consult the authority who will best answer your question or support your argument.

What is the Right Authority?

Smoking on campus is a currently debated topic at many colleges and universities. Do you know the smoking policy on your campus? Where would you look to find it?

Select the blank line to reveal the percentage of respondents that agreed with you.

Campus health center 39.91%

College website 54.58%

Friends who smoke 3.09%

Public health journal article 2.42%

Tough choice?

That’s because it depends on why you want the information and what you plan to do with it. The purpose of your research will determine the authority you need.

Authority is Constructed

Authority is constructed because different communities may have varying ideas about what is considered authoritative. Within communities and fields, a range of perspectives, differences of opinion, and disagreements may exist. You need to choose the authority that best answers your question or helps solve your problem.

For example, researchers employed at a university who are studying the health effects of smoking may consider university-produced studies more authoritative than industry studies.

The reason? Tobacco company researchers may be looking for a result that shows smoking is less harmful to people. University researchers, on the other hand, may be looking for the general effects of smoking on people over time, and they may examine the results in a less biased manner. (8)

Authority is Contextual

Authority is contextual because your information need will influence what level of authority you need to answer your question.

Varying Perspectives

Sometimes the most authoritative voices in a given community are not the loudest or those voices are missing altogether.

For example, because of historical and systemic problems, such as racism and sexism, fewer voices of women and people of color are represented among subject experts in the hard sciences, which affect the overall conversation in that field. Moreover, a range of perspectives, differences of opinion, and disagreements can exist even within individual communities and fields of study.

Look for varying perspectives and voices that may be marginalized or even absent from mainstream sources of authority so that you can consider the issue from multiple angles. This is essential to enriching your knowledge, generating new ideas, and engaging critically and thoughtfully in the communities with which you interact. Reading varying perspectives can also better prepare you to relate your ideas to or distinguish them from the ideas of others. (8)

Evaluating Authority

You now know that authority is constructed and contextual because a particular community determines what it considers authoritative in a given situation. You can use this knowledge to more clearly determine which authority might be helpful for your question, and you can recognize that some voices might not be present in an otherwise authoritative community.

Even when you’ve found sources that are appropriately authoritative for your purpose, evaluating the authority of a specific source can still be challenging.

Examining the following characteristics of sources can help you make an assessment:

Perspective or Bias : Consider whether an authority has perspectives or biases that favor one position over another for reasons not related to an issue itself. You should also consider your own biases as you seek out voices of authority.

Evidence : Examine whether the authority supports claims with evidence.

Dates : Think about how current the evidence is or how much time has passed since a source experienced an event.

Platform : Consider the platform from which the authority communicates and how that affects the usefulness of the information for your research.

Use the following strategies when evaluating authority:

Citation Trail

Look at to whom the authority is citing and who is citing them. Citations are one way to follow the conversation that occurs among individuals interested in a common research topic.

In many cases a source is cited often because other scholars or scientists believe the study provided useful information. However, a high citation count does not necessarily mean a study is unflawed or highly regarded. In some cases a study may be cited frequently because researchers have raised questions about it.

A careful citation analysis can give you a fuller understanding of how a source has been part of larger discussions.


Not all experts in a field agree, but there may be a general consensus on a topic. Statements or articles produced by the national or international organization that represents a given field usually represent such consensus.

For example, a pediatrician opposed to vaccination may write an article you find through a Google search, but the American Association of Pediatrics (the largest and most trusted group of pediatricians) strongly recommends vaccination.

Audience Analysis

Consider which authorities are likely to influence or persuade the audience you are targeting with your research project. Think about the different types of authority you might choose to convince different audiences, such as your parents, your friends, your teacher or professor, or your city council.

Even for audiences that seem similar (e.g., university professors who work in different disciplines), you may be more persuasive with different types of authority. Would you choose the same authority if your audience was a sociology professor, a chemistry professor, or a theatre professor?

Use these characteristics and strategies to identify authoritative sources that are most applicable to your investigation. You won’t know if a source you find is truly authoritative until you take the time to evaluate it. (8)