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Citing Your Sources

A guide to using citation styles effectively and efficiently


Generative artificial intelligence (AI) is an emerging technology that is rapidly evolving. Similar to the internet as a whole, AI tools such as ChatGPT or Google Bard are neither inherently good nor bad in terms of information retrieval and utilization. Rather, they introduce a novel mode of interacting with information.

This brief introduction serves to assist you in developing a critical approach when engaging with generative AI tools, particularly concerning their relationship with information literacy and citing them as sources.

The Information Landscape of ChatGPT

Where does the information come from?

As an AI language model, ChatGPT's responses are generated based on a mixture of licensed data, data created by human trainers, and publicly available data. The entire body of text that has trained ChatGPT is unknown.

When ChatGPT responds to a question, it doesn't immediately provide a specific reference for the source of information. This is because its responses are generated based on a diverse range of predictive language learned from various sources, rather than relying on a single origin. As a result, it is difficult to trace the response back to a singular source or determine its exact origin.

Can ChatGPT provide references?

ChatGPT gave the following answer:

"As an AI language model, I don't have direct access to external sources such as databases or the internet . . . I do not have the ability to provide real-time citations or references for specific claims. If you have specific information or require references, it's always a good idea to consult primary sources, conduct research, or refer to trusted external sources for accurate and verified information." [ChatGPT response to a prompt about references].

In short, ChatGPT cannot provide accurate references.

In the past, when prompted ChatGPT would provide references. These references may not have where the information actually came from and - more importantly - may not have been real sources. Despite sounding plausible, ChatGPT could easily hallucinate citations. This can be an issue with other generative AI tools, like Google Bard, as well.

ChatGPT's May 24 Version no longer provides references or writes full-length papers.

How current is the information ChatGPT provides?

As of June 28, 2023, the cutoff date for the training data used to train ChatGPT is September 2021. Any events, developments, or information that occurred after that date would not be known to the model. ChatGPT is being updated regularly, so this may change.

As of March 24, 2023, OpenAI has begun implementing plugins for ChatGPT which will "help [it] access up-to-date information, run computations, or use third-party services." However, it is important to realize that the currency of the information provided by ChatGPT is lagging. This can impact information credibility, especially when dealing with a topic where the age of your information matters.

Google Bard does not have a cutoff date for the information it was trained on. However, this does not mean Bard will still be wholly accurate.

Checking Generative AI for Credibility

Evaluating all information for credibility is highly recommended, regardless of where you find it. This is true for generative AI responses, especially given the information presented above. There are many different tools, checklists, and strategies to help you evaluate your sources. None of them are black-and-white checklists for determining if a source is credible and if you should use it.

Lateral Reading

To verify information from ChatGPT, don't take it at face value. Instead, consult other reliable sources and see if they confirm the information. Cross-reference with multiple sources, perform searches, and check references. This could be as simple as doing a Google search on the topic. This approach maximizes lateral reading, helps avoid bias, and ensures a more accurate understanding of the topic.

Watch Crash Course's "Check Yourself with Lateral Reading" video (14 min) to learn more.


Creative Commons License CC by NC 4.0 This page was adapted by Erica Huff from AI, ChatGPT, and the Library Libguide by Amy Scheelke for Salt Lake Community College under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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