Authority establishes the reliability and authenticity of a document. There are several factors to be considered in determining reliability and authenticity.
Look for background information about the author. Often this information is included in the front or back of the book, or on the book jacket. If it is not, consult a biographical reference source such as Contemporary Authors, at your local library. Is the author an authority on the topic? To answer this question, consider his or her education, current occupation, and other credentials such as professional certifications and political persuasion. You may also want to find out what other people have to say about the author's work. If the item under consideration is a book, look for book reviews (Book Review Index and Book Review Digest can help you). If it is an article, it will be more difficult to find other people's reponse to the author's work. But it is still possible to do so. Ask a librarian for help.
Sometimes information about the author is unavailable, In this case, the reputation of the publisher or sponsoring organization can verify the authority of the source. Oganizations such as the American Medical Assocation have a reputation to uphold. They are not going to intentionally publish false or unsubstantiated information. Among publishing houses, there are some which uphold rigorous standards of scholarship and literature. Other publishers (called vanity presses) will publish any manuscript sent to them with little or no editing. Check the publisher's web site or talk to a librarian to find out more about a publisher's editorial policies.
Articles for many periodicals are either written by writers on the staff of the periodical, or are submitted by outside authors and accepted or rejected by the periodical's editor. However, scholarly journals add another step to the editorial process, peer review. Peer review means that before an article is accepted for publication it must be reviewed and the author's ideas accepted as valid by the author's peers. This means if the article is written by a Civil War historian, other Civil War historians will review the article. The peer review process adds reliability to the information. Books also sometimes include peer review.
Peer review does make a difference! In November 1999, the National Geographic Society published an article on the dinosaur fossil Archaeoraptor liaoningensis Sloan. Normally the National Geographic Society will not publish an article on any scientific topic not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal. For various reasons, however, this article was published prior to peer-review elsewhere. Soon after publication, it came to light that this fossil was a fake. In October 2000, the National Geographic Society published a report to its readers apologizing for the error and explaining how it happened. If they had waited for the original article intended for a peer reviewed journal this embarrassing mistake would have been avoided.
References are the hallmark of scholarly writing. They may be called footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references. A list of references may be called a bibliography or works cited. But it all serves the same purpose.
A reference should include the author's name, title of the work, publisher's name and location (for books), periodical title and volume (for articles), and publication date.