Authority (in Speech and Writing)

Authority is a major preoccupation of authors and audiences. Authors hope their audiences will find their sources and their works to be authoritative--i.e., trustworthy. In turn, audiences are quick to double check the authority of sources and texts because they don't want to waste their time on frivolous information. Learn the conventions for establishing an authoritative prose style. Learn to develop authority in your communications.

Definition & Summary

In life, authority refers to

  1. one’s power or rights
  2. one’s ability to influence actions, opinions, and beliefs.

For instance, a police offer has the authority, the power, to issue speeding tickets to you if you exceed the speed limit. A judge can throw “the book” at you if you don’t pay the tickets because they are authorized to enforce the law.

In writing and speech, authority may refer to

  1. a reader’s or audience’s perception that a writer’s or reader’s sources are credible
  2. the author’s ethos: the degree to which a writer or speaker’s text seems believable to a reader, listener, or discourse community
  3. a measure of literacy:
  4. a measure of influence
    • For example, Google Scholar tracks the number of citations of an author. The New York Times tracks bestsellers in fiction and nonfiction.
  5. appeals to authority
    • Writers may imply you should trust a source because of the qualifications of the rhetor. For example, “I saw on YouTube a video from a doctor at Harvard. She said if you have a reoccurring sore throat you have 38% chance of getting esophageal cancer.”

Synonyms

  • accuracy
  • writerly authority
  • writing with authority
  • authorial authority
  • authoritative writing
  • trustworthy
  • credible writing
  • powerful writing

Related Concepts: Appeals to Authority; Critical Literacy; Ethos; Fallacious Ethos; Interpretation, Interpretative Frameworks; Persona; Substantive Prose Style; Voice; Tone


Why Does Authority Matter?

Authority is a major preoccupation of both authors and audiences:

  1. Writers and speakers write and speak with authority so their audiences will take their work seriously
  2. Readers, users, and other audiences want to determine if they can trust the speaker or source.
    • People, especially educated people, tend to be critical of what they read, especially if the text is introducing new information or information that challenges their existing beliefs. They don’t want to waste time reading texts that are biased, underdeveloped, and deceptive. The moment they see a weakness in a text — e.g., a lack of familiarity with current scholarly conversations on a topic — they’ll back away. No one wants to waste time on frivolous material.

Elsevier, an academic publisher that specializes in scientific and technical fields, randomly surveyed 3133 scientific and technical researchers from a database of 3.6 million researchers. Remarkably, they found that 37% of the respondents said they surveyed distrusted half of the research outputs they’d read over the previous week. In other words, these extremely well trained researchers distrust about half of what they read–even in peer reviewed publications.

(Elsevier 2019)

What Does Citing a Source Do?

Citations enabled researchers to better understand the flow of scholarly conversations. When used appropriately, citations improve the authority of the page. Citations are a foundational element of an academic or workplace writing prose style. They are a signal to the audience that the writer or speaker is going beyond anecdote and personal anecdote.

How to Assess Authority

Step #1: Do a Quick Assessment of the Authors & Publishers:

As a preliminary assessment of authority, take a moment to review

  1. the qualifications of the source’s authors.
    • For example, an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine would influence most physicians’ opinions about a surgical procedure far more easily than a blog by a social influencer. Thus, it makes sense to ask
      • Who wrote or published the resource?
      • Is there a clear author, either a person or organization?
      • What are the qualifications of the author?
        • What are their academic and professional credentials?
        • Do they have Master’s and Ph.D.s in the pertinent field of study?
        • Do they work for a research institute, a think tank, a lobbying group, or a professional organization?
        • What is their Web of Science, Scopus, or Google Scholar score?
  2. the quality of the publisher
    • What kind of publisher is it?
      • A website?
        • What kind of website is it? What is the URL? –.com .edu .gov .org .net
      • A traditional press? a trade press? a university press? a for-profit press for people who want to pay to self publish their work? someone’s blog site?
      • Is the publisher affiliated with a university? a professional organization? a national news organization? a foundation? a think tank?
      • Does the publisher, whether it’s a print publication or a website, use peer review to make publishing decisions?
        • Are the qualifications and professional associations of the reviewers disclosed?

Step #2: Evaluate Authority Data

Once you’ve given a source a quick look to ascertain the credibility of the authors and publishers, you can dig in and do a deeper analysis. To jumpstart your critique, consider the following critical perspectives:

  1. Bias
    • Can you identify any hidden agendas? Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases?
    • Are there any conflicts of interest? For example, is the author funded by a business to do research on a product or service?
    • What individuals or organizations support the publication? Are that organization’s purposes and goals stated clearly and openly?
    • To substantiate claims, does the author rely on anecdotal information, stories, textual research?
  2. Peer Review
    • Is the information peer reviewed? Does the publisher use peer review to make publishing decisions?
  3. Methodological Flaws
    • Has the investigator used the appropriate methods?
    • Has the investigator exaggerated findings?
  4. Communication
  5. Citations
  6. Critical & Analytical Thinking
  7. Errors

Works Cited

Blakeslee, Sarah (2004) “The CRAAP Test,” LOEX Quarterly: Vol. 31: No. 3, Article 4.

Elsevier. (n.d.). Trust in Research. Elsevier Connect. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://www.elsevier.com/connect/trust-in-research

Whitmore, Marilyn P. (1996) Empowering Students; Hands-on Library Instruction Activities. Pittsburgh: Library Instruction Publications.