How to make ChatGPT provide sources and citations


One of the common criticisms of ChatGPT is that it provides information without clear verifiability and accuracy. The absence of sources, footnotes, or links to back up its answers raises uncertainty about the reliability of the information.

However, this criticism is not entirely true.

How to Obtain Sources and Citations from ChatGPT

By using the right prompts, you can prompt ChatGPT to provide sources. Here are the steps:

1. Formulate a Detailed Query

To start, ask ChatGPT a question that necessitates sources or citations. It is more effective to ask a question that requires a longer, more detailed response, as this provides more information for ChatGPT to generate sources.

Keep in mind that ChatGPT cannot provide information beyond 2021, so requests for pre-internet information, such as details about Ronald Reagan's presidency, will have fewer available sources.

For example, here's a prompt I wrote during my time in graduate school on a topic I extensively researched:

Describe the learning theories of cognitivism, behaviorism, and constructivism

2. Request Sources from ChatGPT

Prompt engineering plays a role in this step. Start by using the following query:

Please provide sources for the previous answer

This query often generates offline sources, such as books or papers. However, the downside to offline sources is that their veracity cannot be easily verified. A better query is:

Please provide URL sources

This explicitly indicates to ChatGPT that you are seeking clickable links as sources. You can also customize the query by specifying the desired quantity of sources, although the number you receive may vary:

Please provide 10 URL sources

In the next step, we will explore how to handle the sources received.

3. Evaluating the Provided Sources

Keep in mind this crucial rule about ChatGPT-provided sources: ChatGPT is more likely to be wrong than right.

Based on my numerous experiences requesting URL sources from ChatGPT, approximately half of the provided links are invalid. Additionally, 25% or more of the links are either unrelated or somewhat relevant to the topic you are sourcing.

For example, I once requested sources on the phrase "trust but verify," often attributed to US President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Although I received several sources, most of them did not exist. Some of the sources directed me to pages on the Reagan Presidential Library site, but these pages were unrelated to the phrase I was investigating.

When it comes to my question about learning theories from step 1, I had slightly better luck. I received offline texts from individuals whom I knew had worked on these theories during my studies. I also received URLs as sources, but only about 20% of them were accessible and accurate.

However, don't be discouraged. The goal is not to rely solely on ChatGPT for usable sources. Instead, think of ChatGPT as a research assistant that provides starting points. Make note of the article titles (though they may be fictional or inaccessible) and conduct further searches on Google. This approach will yield interesting search queries, leading you to valuable reads and materials that can be genuinely incorporated into your research.

Additionally, remember that ChatGPT is just one of many tools available to researchers and students. Don't neglect your own web searches, consult primary sources, and reach out to subject matter experts if possible. If you are in school, don't hesitate to seek assistance from your friendly neighborhood librarian.

Let's not forget the wealth of traditional sources. Google Scholar and JSTOR, for instance, provide access to a wide range of academically acceptable resources that you can confidently cite.

Lastly, if you simply copy and paste sources provided by ChatGPT into your research, you are likely to encounter problems. Instead, use them as clues for further investigation, rather than a means of evading the genuine work of research.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can sources be formatted in APA style?

APA style, often required in academic programs, stands for the American Psychological Association. For comprehensive guidelines on APA style, the Purdue OWL is the definitive starting point, although online style formatters may not always produce accurate results. It is advisable to undertake the formatting process diligently to avoid potential issues with professors and ensure accuracy.

How can I obtain more reliable sources from ChatGPT?

This is a valid question. Occasionally, if you request ChatGPT to provide more sources or ask for better ones due to the inaccuracies of the initial sources, it may generate new listings. ChatGPT may apologize and offer improved sources, or it may offer excuses. Another strategy involves rephrasing your original question from a different angle and then requesting sources for the new answer.

Once again, my recommendation is to treat ChatGPT as a writing assistant rather than a tool that writes on your behalf. Asking for sources with the intention of directly copying and pasting them into your work amounts to plagiarism. However, using ChatGPT's response and any sources it provides as clues for further research and writing is a completely legitimate approach to utilizing this fascinating new tool.

Why are ChatGPT sources often unreliable?

Some sources may be inaccurate or non-existent due to link rot, where the content has changed or disappeared over time. Since we do not possess a complete list of ChatGPT's sources, it is impossible to determine their initial validity. However, given that ChatGPT was primarily trained without human supervision, it is clear that most of its sources were not carefully vetted, potentially leading to incorrect, fabricated, or entirely fictional sources.


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