One of the biggest complaints about ChatGPT is that it provides information, but the veracity and accuracy of that information is uncertain. That’s because ChatGPT doesn’t provide sources, footnotes, or links to where it derived information used in its answers.
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But that’s not fully true.
How to make ChatGPT provide sources and citations
If you know how to properly prompt ChatGPT, it will give you sources. Here’s how.
To start, you need to ask ChatGPT something that needs sources or citations. I’ve found it’s better to ask a question with a longer answer so there’s more “meat” for ChatGPT to chew on.
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Keep in mind that ChatGPT can’t provide any information after 2021 and requests about information pre-internet (say, for a paper on Ronald Reagan’s presidency) will have far fewer available sources.
Here’s an example of a prompt I wrote on a topic I worked on a lot when I was in grad school:
Describe the learning theories of cognitivism, behaviorism, and constructivism
This is where a bit of prompt engineering comes in. A good starting point is with this query:
Please provide sources for the previous answer
I’ve found that this often provides offline sources, books, papers, etc. The problem with offline sources is you can’t check their veracity. But it’s a starting point. A better query is this:
Please provide URL sources
This specifically tells ChatGPT that you want clickable links to sources. You can also tweak this up by asking for a specific quantity of sources, although your mileage may vary in terms of how many you get back:
Please provide 10 URL sources
In our next step, we’ll see what we can do with these.
Keep in mind this golden rule about ChatGPT-provided sources: ChatGPT is more often wrong than right.
Across the many times I’ve asked ChatGPT for URL sources, roughly half are just plain bad links. Another 25% or more are links that go to topics completely or somewhat unrelated to the one you’re trying to source.
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For example, I asked for sources on a backgrounder for the phrase “trust but verify,” generally attributed to 1980s US President Ronald Reagan. I got a lot of sources back, but most didn’t actually exist. I got some back that correctly took me to active pages on the Reagan Presidential Library site, but where the page topic had nothing to do with the phrase in question.
I had a bit better luck with my learning theory question from step 1. There, I got back offline texts from the people who I knew from my studies had actually worked on those theories. I also got back URLs, but again, only about two in ten actually worked or were accurate.
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But don’t despair. The idea isn’t to expect ChatGPT to provide sources that you can immediately use. If you instead think of ChatGPT as a research assistant, it will give you some great starting places. Use the names of the articles (which may be completely fake or just not accessible) and drop them into Google. That will give you some interesting search queries, which will more than likely lead to some interesting reads and material that can legitimately go into your research.
Also, keep in mind that you’re not limited to using ChatGPT. Just because ChatGPT exists doesn’t mean you should forget all the tools available to researchers and students. Do your own web searches. Check with primary sources and subject matter experts if they’re available to you. If you’re in school, you can even ask your friendly neighborhood librarian for help.
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Don’t forget that there are many excellent traditional sources. For example, Google Scholar and JSTOR provide access to a wide range of academically-acceptable resources you can cite with reasonable confidence.
One final point: if you merely cut and paste ChatGPT sources into whatever research you’re doing, you’re likely to get stung. Use it for clues, not for a way to avoid the real work of research.
How do you put sources in APA format?
APA style is a citation style that’s often required in academic programs. APA stands for American Psychological Association, and I’ve often thought that they invented these style rules in order to get more customers. But, seriously, the definitive starting point for APA style is the Purdue OWL. It provides a wide range of style guidelines.
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Be careful: online style formatters may not do a complete job, and you may get your work returned by your professor. It pays to do the work yourself, and use care doing it.
How can I make ChatGPT provide more reliable sources for its responses?
This is a good question. I have found that sometimes — sometimes — if you ask ChatGPT to give you more sources, or re-ask for sources, it will give you new listings. If you tell ChatGPT that the sources it provided were erroneous, it will sometimes give you better ones. It may also just apologize and give excuses. Another approach is to re-ask your original question with a different focus or direction, and then ask for sources for the new answer.
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Once again, my best advice is to avoid treating ChatGPT as a tool that writes for you and more as a writing assistant. Asking for sources so you can just cut and paste a ChatGPT response is pretty much plagiarism. But using ChatGPT’s response and any sources you can tease out of it as clues for further research and writing is a completely legitimate way to use this intriguing new tool.
Why are ChatGPT sources often so wrong?
For some links, it’s just link rot. Since all sources are at least three years old, some links may have changed. Other sources are of indeterminate age. Since we don’t have a full listing of all of ChatGPT’s sources, it’s impossible to tell how valid they were to begin with. But since ChatGPT was trained mostly without human supervision, we know that most of its sources weren’t vetted, and so could be wrong, made-up, or completely non-existent.
Trust, but verify.
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