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Information Literacy Guide: Evaluating Information

ACRL Standard Three

The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.

 Performance Indicators:

  1. The information literate student summarizes the main ideas to be extracted from the information gathered.
  2. The information literate student articulates and applies initial criteria for evaluating both the information and its sources.
  3. The information literate student synthesizes main ideas to construct new concepts.
  4. The information literate student compares new knowledge with prior knowledge to determine the value added, contradictions, or other unique characteristics of the information.
  5. The information literate student determines whether the new knowledge has an impact on the individual’s value system and takes steps to reconcile differences.
  6. The information literate student validates understanding and interpretation of the information through discourse with other individuals, subject-area experts, and/or practitioners.
  7. The information literate student determines whether the initial query should be revised.

Source: Information literacy competency standards for higher education. (2000).

Critical Questions

Here are some questions to guide you through the process of critical evaluation of information sources:

Relevance:

  • Is the document related to your on topic?
  • Is the information at appropriate depth or level for your assignment?

Authority:

  • Is the source a scholarly or popular publication? And is the publisher reputable in this discipline?
  • Is the author a recognized authority in this field of study? What are their credentials? (And are their credentials related to the subject matter?)
  • Do other authors quote from this author's works?
  • Is there a means of contacting the author?

Timeliness/Currency:

  • When was the document written? (Look for a publication, copyright, or “last updated” date.)
  • Is it recent enough to be relevant to your topic or discipline? Sometimes you are required to use recently published material; sometimes you must use historical documents.

Validity/Accuracy:

  • Does the author provide sources for statistical information?
  • Is the data from a valid study (that utilized accepted methodologies for the discipline)?

Argument:

  • Analyze the author's argument, the assumptions made, the evidence or data gathered, and the interpretation of the data.
  • Are there any flaws in the author's logic?
  • Does the author consider alternate interpretations of the evidence?
  • If you discovered that the author ignored other interpretations, is the author attempting to deceive or manipulate readers?

Coverage:

  • Does the author refer to relevant information or data that was available at the time the work was published?
  • Or, does the author use out-of-date information; or ignore information or data that was available at the time?
  • Did the author consider all aspects relevant to the topic?

Bias/Objectivity:

  • Does the author state any bias?
  • If you discovered any omissions in the coverage of the topic, did this reveal a bias or prejudice?
  • Is the author selling something? Do they have a corporate sponsor?


Source: University of Saskatchewan Library

Evaluating Information

Evaluating the information you find in books, journals, and on the Internet is an important process in your academic work. Not all information sources will be authoritative, reliable, or well researched, but this does not mean they are not valuable for your field of study.

After completing this SECTION, you will be able to evaluate information critically by looking at:

  • fact vs opinion
  • the authority of the information
  • the publishing body
  • the currency of the information
  • understand the difference between popular and academic periodicals
  • understand primary and secondary sources
  • apply critical reading skills
  • eliminate irrelevant information

You will learn tips on how to identify what type of information source you have found and how to evaluate the content of the source.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources of Information

Primary sources of information are original materials that often convey new ideas, discoveries, or information. These sources originate from the time period under study. Examples of primary sources include:

  • original research studies (often in the form of journal articles in peer-reviewed publications), also called empirical studies (e.g. psychology)
  • patents, technical reports
  • original documents such as diaries, letters, emails, manuscripts, lab data/notes
  • newspaper articles from the time period under study
  • autobiographies, first-person accounts, case studies
  • artifacts and archival material such as official documents, minutes recorded by government agencies and organizations, photographs, coins, fossils, natural specimens
  • works of art such as literature, music, architecture, or paintings

Secondary sources of information are based on primary sources. They are generally written at a later date and provide some discussion, analysis, or interpretation of the original primary source. Examples of secondary sources include:

  • review articles or analyses of research studies about the same topic (also often in peer-reviewed publications)
  • biographies, reviews, or critiques of an author
  • analyses of original documents or archival material

Tertiary sources of information are based on a collection of primary and secondary sources. Examples of tertiary sources include:

  • textbooks (sometimes considered as secondary sources)
  • dictionaries and encyclopedias
  • manuals, guidebooks, directories, almanacs
  • indexes and bibliographies

TIP:  What is considered primary, secondary, or tertiary information may vary according to your field of study. When in doubt, ask your lecturer.

 

Source: University of Saskatchewan Library

Video Tutorial: Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources

Scholarly versus Popular Sources

In academic research considerable emphasis is placed upon using scholarly materials. You may also see the terms academic, peer reviewed or refereed used to describe scholarly materials.

Scholarly, academic, refereed, or peer-reviewed journal articles:

  • In peer-reviewed journals (also called refereed), the articles are reviewed by other experts in the same field of study before they are accepted for publication.
  • In scholarly journals (also called academic), the articles are written by academics but the articles are not always reviewed by experts in the topic the author is writing about before publication. 
  •  In the article, the author's credentials are listed and are relevant to the subject of the article.
  • A bibliography or citation list is included at the end of the article, allowing you to trace the information on which the author has based the paper.
  • Scholarly, academic and peer reviewed, refereed journals are often published by a university press or academic association.
  • The intended audience is professionals, researchers, or students in the discipline; and the language is often technical, requiring prior knowledge of the field.

 Popular magazine articles:

  • Popular magazines and newspapers are found on newsstands.
  • Popular magazine articles are written for the general public.
  • The author may be a staff writer or journalist, who may not have an academic background in the subject matter.
  • Bibliographies or works cited are rarely included at the end of an article or within the text of an article.

Scholarly books:

  • Published by a university press, or a scholarly society, or an academic series by a trade publisher (e.g. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series)
  • The author often has an academic affiliation and is a recognized authority on a topic (e.g. professor at a university).
  • The work includes an extensive bibliography or list of works cited and an index to topics covered.

Popular books:

  • Published by a trade publisher such as Random House and intended for a broad audience, not just those studying in that discipline.
  • The author may have a corporate or business affiliation instead of an academic affiliation.
  • The author may include a bibliography and index, but they are less extensive than for scholarly books.

TIP:  In academic research there is a clear preference for refereed or scholarly material. However, there is also a role for non-scholarly material since it often reflects contemporary thought and is popular. Also, there may be little scholarly material  available on a given topic. If you use sources such as newspapers or popular magazines, clearly point out that your information reflects a "commonly accepted position" but is "difficult to verify or refute".

 

Source: University of Saskatchewan Library