Evaluating Information Resources
In this age of ever-expanding sources of information we must be critical information consumers. It can be foolish, and sometimes dangerous, to take what we read and what we hear at face value. Every researcher should critically evaluate information before applying it to his or her academic research.
Most researchers on the NSU campus will use three primary types of information resources in the course of their research:
- Books from the Williams Library or other library collections
- Articles in print and online periodicals
- Web resources freely available on the Internet
There are differences in these information resources that relate to how they are evaluated. Here's a short course in how to conduct your evaluation.
The books you find in the Williams Library collections, and in other library collections, have already undergone some sort of evaluation. Our librarians consider pre-publication book reviews, recommendations from other librarians, the curriculum currently being supported across campus, and the recommendations of your professors before purchasing books and other materials for the library's collections.
All of this does not mean that every book in the library is appropriate for every research project. Here are some things to think about when you're selecting books from the library's collections:
- Currency: What is the publication date of the book? If you're working on a project that demands current information, you'll need to limit your book search to more recently published materials.
- Authority: Who wrote the book? Who published the book? You want to include authoritative sources in your research—authors with the appropriate credentials (advanced degrees in their field, appropriate professional experience), books published by well known publishing houses. One caution: Just because a book was not published by a well known publishing house does not mean that it lacks authority. However, you may need to more carefully examine the credentials of the author and the author's handling of the subject matter before concluding whether the book is appropriate for your research.
- Objectivity: What point of view does the author present? Is the author impartial? Or does the author have a particular agenda that he/she seeks to advance in the book? If your research is on a controversial topic, is the content of the book fair and balanced? Is the author affiliated with a particular advocacy group?
- Scope (Coverage): What does the book cover? Is it a general work that provides a broad overview of the subject matter? Or does the book provide significant detail on your particular topic? How does the coverage of the book match your topic? Is there enough evidence to support claims made in the book?
- Audience: Who is the intended audience for the book? Is it a lighthearted treatment of the subject intended to entertain? Or does it focus on research or other matters of interest to an academic audience?
You can find articles in the Print Periodicals collection in Williams Library and through the Online Databases page on the library's Web site. Most of the same evaluation factors cited in the Books section relate to articles. You'll need to think about the following when you're looking for articles to support your research:
- Currency: What is the publication date of the article?
- Authority: Does the author of the article have expertise in the field?
- Objectivity: Is the author's treatment of the subject impartial?
- Scope (Coverage): Does the article address the topic broadly or provide detail on a particular element of the topic?
- Audience: Is the article intended for an academic or popular audience?
When you think about intended audience, remember that articles can come from different types of periodicals that are directed to specific types of readers. The primary types of periodicals that you'll encounter in your research are:
A scholarly journal is typically one that is published by and for experts. Features of a scholarly journal include:
- A bibliography or reference list included in most articles
- Information about the author's background and credentials
- Articles often detail the results of research studies
- Tables, graphs, and statistical data
- Lack of popular advertisements
- Not printed on glossy paper
- Little color, simple layout, not eye-catching
- Primarily concerned with content
Some examples of scholarly journals include Journal of Applied Physics, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Communication Studies, Social Indicators Research, Art Journal, and Clinical Social Work Journal. Notice that several of these examples of scholarly journals have the word journal in their title.
Many scholarly journals require a peer review process before articles can be published. In peer reviewed journals (sometimes called refereed journals), an author's work is reviewed by two or more individuals who are experts in the subject matter addressed in the article. After their review, the reviewers (or referees) may return the article to its author with suggestions for improvement or modification. Each reviewer makes a recommendation whether to reject or accept the article, and sometimes the acceptance is subject to conditions of edit. Reviewers typically remain anonymous and are carefully chosen to have no relationship to the article's author to limit bias in the review process. The peer review process can take a long time to complete, sometimes delaying publication of an article for one year or more from the date of its original submission.
A popular magazine targets a different audience than the scholarly journal, typically a more general audience. Features of a popular magazine include:
- Articles written by staff writers or freelance journalists
- Shorter articles, sometimes without attribution to a specific author
- Articles rarely contain citations
- Articles undergo an editorial review, but no peer review
- Include popular advertisements
- Printed on glossy paper
- Lots of color, graphically interesting, eye-catching
Some examples of popular magazines include newsmagazines such as Newsweek, Time, and US News & World Report. Other examples of popular magazines include BusinessWeek, Scientific American, and Atlantic Monthly.
Identifying Scholarly vs. Popular Online
It's relatively easy to identify the differences between scholarly journals and popular magazines when you're looking at them in print. You can readily identify the color and flash of a popular magazine cover or the appearance of a reference list at the end of a scholarly article. But you aren't presented with these visual cues when you're doing online research.
So how do you make the distinction between scholarly and popular when you're online? It's easy. Most of the online databases available through Williams Library include a check box on their search screens with a label that says something like Limit to Scholarly Journals, Peer Review, or Referred Publications. All you have to do is check the box and let the database's search engine do the work for you. If you use the proper limit option, every article that comes up in your search result will be from a scholarly journal. Bear in mind, however, that not every scholarly journal is peer reviewed. Some online database article records indicate whether a scholarly article is peer reviewed. Or you may need to check the Web site of the journal's publisher or a print copy of the journal to determine if the journal is indeed peer reviewed.
Find more information about the differences between scholarly and popular periodicals in What is a Scholarly Journal?
The nature of the Web—it's freely available, it's easy to put documents on the Web—makes it both a great information resource and one that you need to use with caution. Unlike the books you find in Williams Library and the articles in scholarly journals, most materials you find on the Web haven't undergone any kind of evaluation. Keep in mind that anyone, but anyone, can post a page on the Web. You don't need credentials, you don't need to undergo a peer review, and you don't need to know anything about your subject matter. If you have access to the technology and a few skills, you can have a presence on the Web.
Researchers need to use all of their evaluation skills when surfing the Web for information. We suggest that you start with the same type of evaluation you would do for books and articles and expand into new territory specific to the Web. Here are some things to think about during your next Web search:
- When was the Web page produced? Often copyright or other dates appear at the bottom of the page.
- Does the subject matter of the site require currency? If you're looking for information in science, technology, or business you may want to skip sites that do not reflect a recent revision date.
- Is there any indication of a revision date? If yes, when was the site last updated? If a site's last revision date was several years ago the author has probably abandoned the site.
- Are the links in the site working?
- What are the revision dates on documents available on the site? If there are no dates on the document and the information is factual or statistical, don't use it.
- Who is the author of the site? Is there an author listed? A sponsoring organization? Look for an About Us link or you may need to go back to the home page of the site to find information about the individual or group responsible for the site.
- If you can't identify the author or sponsoring organization responsible for the site's content, don't use the site.
- Does the author provide his/her credentials? Can they be verified? What sort of expertise does the author have?
- You can find out a lot just from the domain name in the URL:
- .edu for educational institutions
- .gov for government agencies
- .com for commercial sites
- .mil for military sites
- .net for an Internet Service Provider
- .org for a nonprofit organization
- Does the site offer a way for you to contact those responsible for site content? Is there a Contact Us link or an email address to use?
- Does the page link back to a home page? If yes, track back to the home page and determine if the site is supported by an individual or an organization. Here's a tip to identify personal pages: Look for a tilde ( ~ ) in the URL. If you find a tilde in the URL, be wary.
- Is the author of the site presenting a fair and balanced view of the subject matter?
- Does the sponsoring organization have a vested interested in presenting a single side of an issue?
- Is the information provided in the site opinion or fact?
- Is factual information backed up with citations? Is there a reference list?
- Is there a bias (a one-sided view, a prejudice)? Is the bias upfront or does the site try to hide it? Biased information is not necessarily inappropriate for use in your research, but you should take the bias into consideration when using the information.
- Does the site include advertising? If yes, is it separated from the site content? Or is the site content influenced by the products being advertised?
- Does the site cover the topic in depth or just skim the surface?
- Does the site provide new information or simply links to other sites?
- Who is the intended audience? Popular, academic, k-12, consumer, etc.
- What is the purpose of the site? Think about these options: inform, explain, persuade, sell.
- Is the content appropriate and relevant for use in a research project?
- Is the site heavy with graphics with the intention to entertain? Or is the site relatively uncluttered, and do the few graphics present in the site relate to site content?
- Do you have good reason to believe the information contained in the site? Do you know that the site is not merely opinion or material put forth by someone who is not an expert in the field?
- Does the information appear to be well researched and well supported by evidence?
- Are factual statements and quotes backed up by citations to their sources? Are the sources credible?
- If the site is sponsored by an organization or an institution, are you familiar with it? Can you find out more about the organization or institution through means other than the site itself?
- Is there a way you can verify the site's content through another means? Perhaps a print counterpart, other reference materials?
- Does the site link out to sources other than those contained in the site itself (these are sometimes referred to as external links)? Be wary of sites that provide only internal links (links to Web pages in the same site).
- * Do the external links provided on the site provide alternative viewpoints?
Site Structure and Design
- Is the site easy to navigate? Are the pages well organized and easy to access?
- Is the information clearly presented?
- Are graphics used appropriately? Or do they distract from the information being presented?
- Are the links related to the subject matter addressed in the site?
- Are the links current? Are they annotated?
- Is the site free of grammatical and typographical errors?
Other Techniques for Web Evaluation
- Get a listing of the other Web pages that link to the site you're evaluating. You can do this in search engines like Google and AltaVista by conducting a link search. For example, you can use Google to conduct a link search on the online newspaper USA Today by typing link:http://www.usatoday.com in the Google search box. After you have the list of linked sites, look to see who sponsors the sites. Are they educational institutions? Personal pages? Do you recognize any of the sites? Does it appear that the linked sites are, for the most part, reliable?
- Look up the site you're evaluating on a Web site that specializes in reviewing Internet resources. Some of these sites are supported by professional librarians who select the best and most recent sites and provide their review of each resource. Here are some Internet resource review sites to try:
Check the following Web pages from other academic libraries to find more information about evaluating Web sites. In addition to more information about how to conduct your evaluation, you'll find exercises that let you try out your evaluation skills.
- Evaluating Web Pages: Experience Why It's Important (University of California Berkeley: Teaching Library Internet Workshops)
- The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: or, Why It's a Good Idea to Evaluate Web Sources: Evaluation Criteria (New Mexico State University Library)
- Evaluating Web Sites (Tutorial) (Ohio State University Libraries)