Lesson 5: Evaluating Information

Lesson 5: Evaluating Information
Introduction
Format of Materials
Sources of Information
Reference materials
Books
Periodicals
Web Pages
Popular Vs. Scholarly
Magazines vs. Journals
Evaluation Criteria
Accuracy
Authority
Purpose
Currency
Objectivity
Appropriateness
Examples
Applying the Evaluation Criteria
Examples
Books
Journal/Magazine articles
Evaluating Web Pages
Three Examples (from the previous page)
Applying the Six Evaluation Criteria to a Web Page



Introduction
Not all information is created equal. Evaluating information requires critical thinking. It involves
identifying the type of information you're looking for, and understanding the advantages/
disadvantages of various types of sources. To this end, we will discuss:


The different formats of materials

The difference between magazines & journals

Six evaluation criteria to apply to sources

Evaluating Web pages


Format of Materials
Sources of Information

Information comes from lots of different sources. Here we will evaluate four different formats
that information can come in: reference materials, books, periodicals, and Web pages. The
nature of your topic may determine which format is best for you, but often a combination of
these is the best way to find information.

Reference materials

Reference materials are things like dictionaries, encyclopedias, directories, atlases, and
manuals. They provide quick facts or statistics or give you a brief overview of a topic.

Reference Strengths Reference Weaknesses

Quick facts from an authoritative
source

Good for getting research ideas
& background information

Don't provide much detail

You will need to move on to other sources
for any substantial amount of information

Books

Books are those things with pages made of paper that you carry around and read.

Book Strengths Book Weaknesses

Books have lots of space to devote to one
topic. They have the space available for
lengthy arguments and detail.

Before a book is published, it goes through
an editorial process where it is fact-checked
and edited for clarity and typos.

Books are really good resources for history
topics or for historical background on a
topic. Getting Web pages or periodicals that
are older than 10 -15 years can be difficult.

It takes a long time to write and
publish a book.

Books are not always the
best source for topics where
information is constantly
changing, such as technology or
medicine.

Books are also not the best
source for information on recent
or current events.

Periodicals

Periodicals are published every day, or every week, or every month, and so on. They are
publications that come out periodically (hence the name). They include newspapers, journals,
and magazines.

Periodical Strengths Periodical Weaknesses

The information in periodicals is usually
more current than in books or reference
sources. They are an excellent source
for current events or topics that change
rapidly, such as computers.

Like books, periodicals go through an
editorial process where they are fact-
checked and edited for clarity and typos.

Some periodicals are more thoroughly
edited than others. We will discuss the
differences between scholarly journals and
popular magazines on the next page.

Articles in periodicals will not
cover as much territory as books.
They might not be as detailed or
give as much of an overview of a
topic.

Some scholarly journal articles
may be too specific or technical
for a general audience to
understand.

Web Pages

Web pages are readily available to anyone with an Internet connection. These are the things
you find when you use a Web directory or search engine. This makes them the first information
choice for many people. However, they are not always a good substitute for library resources.

Web Strengths Web Weaknesses

There are many different
points of view on the Web.
Everyone has a voice.

There are lots of different
formats of information on
the Web (text, images,
audio, video, interactive
media.)

The Web can be very
up-to-date. Often events
appear in "real time," as
they happen.

The Web is not very organized and finding what
you need is often like looking for a needle in a
haystack.

There's no quality control on the Web, which
means there's lots of wrong, misleading, or biased
information.

For a complete list of the Web's shortcomings,
read Mark Herring's 10 Reasons Why the
Internet is No Substitute for a Library (http://
www.ala.org/ala/alonline/resources/slctdarticles/
10reasonswhy.cfm).



Popular Vs. Scholarly
Magazines vs. Journals

What's the difference between a magazine and a journal? Magazines are considered popular
works, whereas journals are considered scholarly. But what does that mean?

Popular works are generally aimed at a wide audience. The publisher wants to make a
profit by selling copies of their publication. Popular works are easy to read and include many
advertisements. The articles are usually written by professional writers or journalists, who may
or may not have expertise on the subject they are writing about. Usually the sources consulted
are not documented (that is, there is no bibliography at the end of the article.)

Examples of popular works are magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Newsweek, and
Rolling Stone. Newspapers are also considered popular works.

Scholarly journals, on the other hand, are written for an audience of scholars and experts in
the field. They are usually published by a university or professional organization. Articles may
be quite lengthy and provide original information or new research findings. They are written by
scholars and researchers in the field. Most articles have an extensive bibliography of sources
consulted.

The articles in scholarly journals are peer reviewed (also known as "refereed.") This means a
panel of experts will read an article before it is published. They make sure that the facts and
theories presented are reliable, and that the argument is sound.

Examples of scholarly journals are Agronomy Journal, Journal of Gerontology, and Volta
Review.

Another category is professional, trade, and industry journals. These are written for people in
specific careers. They may use a lot of jargon related to the field and if there are advertisements
they are related to the profession or industry.

Examples of professional, trade and industry journals are American Libraries, AG Week, Beef,
and RN.

See the next page for a chart that shows the differences between journals, magazines, and
newspapers.



Scholarly
Journals
Professional,
Trade & Industry
Journals
Newspapers Popular
Magazines
Examples American Annals
of the Deaf
Journal of
Military History
RN
American Libraries
Restaurants &
Institutions
New York
Times
Chicago
Tribune
Time
Newsweek
Sports Illustrated
Journal of
Communication
Wall Street
Journal
Focus original research
in-depth analysis
theoretical &
experimental
peer reviewed/
refereed
news & trends in
the field
research &
practices
employment &
career information
current news
entertainment
local and
regional
editorials
current events
popular culture
news analysis
interviews
Language academic &
technical
specific to the
field
jargon specific to
the field
aimed at a wide
audience
aimed at a wide
audience
Authors Scholars,
researchers,
experts in the
field
Practitioners in the
field or journalists
with knowledge of
the subject
Journalists Journalists
Sources Footnotes and
bibliographies;
extensive
documentation
Sources often cited Rarely cite
sources in full
Rarely cite sources
Publisher Professional
organizations,
universities,
research
institutes, and
scholarly presses
Professional and
trade associations;
commercial
publishers
Commercial/
trade publisher
Commercial/trade
publisher
Graphics Graphs, charts,
and tables;
usually no
advertisements
Photos,
charts, tables;
advertisements
related to the
profession/industry
Photos, charts,
advertisements
Very glossy;
photos, graphics,
advertisements


Evaluation Criteria

Whatever source you're looking at, whether it's a book,
journal article, or Web page, you should always apply
these six Evaluation Criteria: Accuracy, Authority,
Purpose, Currency, Objectivity and Appropriateness.


Accuracy

Is the information in the source accurate?

Is there an editor or someone who verifies or checks the information?

Does this source say things that can't be verified in other sources?

Are there lots of typos, spelling and grammatical errors? (If someone is sloppy with their
presentation, it might indicate sloppiness with their facts as well.)
Authority

Who is the author? Do they make it clear or try to hide it?

What are the author's credentials or occupation?

If no author is listed, are there any indications as to where the information came from?
Purpose

What is the purpose of this source?

Simply to inform?

To persuade you to support a cause?

To sell a product or get your money?

To entertain or pull your leg?

Who is the intended audience? The general public? 3rd graders? Scholars? Star Trek
enthusiasts?
Currency

How old is this source?

Is a date listed?

Is it important for your topic that the information be current?

Are there newer developments that aren't addressed in this source?
Objectivity

Are different perspectives on the issue presented?

Does the source present facts or opinions?

Is the source published, sponsored, or endorsed by a special interest group?
Appropriateness

Is this source appropriate for my specific topic?

Does the information help to answer, or shed light on, my research question?

Is the language appropriate for my level of understanding?

Does this source add anything new to my understanding of the topic? What does it offer
that other sources don't?

Not living up to all of these criteria doesn't automatically make a source "bad." Many things
depend on your topic and the nature of the assignment. Although not every single source
for every single paper must meet these criteria, it's important to have some that do. And it's
important to recognize when a source doesn't meet these criteria. Let's look at some examples
on the next page...


Examples
Applying the Evaluation Criteria

Library resources (books, periodical articles, reference sources) already have an advantage
over Web pages or "Internet" sources. Let's take a look at them with regard to the six evaluation
criteria:

Accuracy: Library resources are published items, which mean they've been through an editorial
process. Editors have reviewed these sources before they are published to check for typos,
language, and general content. In addition, scholarly journals have gone through peer review,
which adds an extra layer of accuracy.

Authority: Virtually all library resources list an author and usually state the author's credentials.
Articles appearing in scholarly journals have been written by scholars in the field.

Purpose: Because they are selected by a librarian and cataloged, library resources usually
have a purpose that it consistent with the institution they serve. Items that are fiction, for
example, are shelved in a different area than non-fiction books.

Currency: Published materials are always dated, so you know how current the information is.

Objectivity: In general, libraries don't buy materials that are published by special-interest
groups, unless they provide equal representation to opposite viewpoints. Balance and objectivity
are core values to libraries.

Appropriateness: Librarians select which items are added to the library collection. They try to
choose things that are appropriate to the collection.

Even with library resources, it is ultimately your responsibility to choose sources that are
appropriate for your topic.


Examples

Books
Let's say you're writing a paper on how diabetes impacts lifestyle. You've found the following
books in our catalog. Which of them would be the most appropriate source for your paper?


Danowski, T. S. Diabetes as a way of life. 1974.

Kasilambros, Nicholas. Atlas of the diabetic foot. 2003.

Ford-Martin, Paula. The everything diabetes book: from diagnosis and diet to insulin and
exercise, all you need to live a healthy, active life. 2004.

Tuch, Bernard. Diabetes research: a guide for postgraduates. 2000.

Dunning, Trisha. Care of people with diabetes: a manual of nursing practice. 1994.

Since these are all published books from the library, we can assume that these books are
all relatively accurate. For information on authority, we would have to look at each book to
see if they mention the author's credentials. Is the author a doctor, nutritionist, or medical
professional? A sufferer of diabetes? The purpose of the books can usually be established
from the title. A few of these titles are manuals for people with diabetes on how to live with it.
One is a guide for nurses or nursing students. Are any of these books trying to sell a certain
product or trying to entertain? It's doubtful from the titles, but we'd have to look at them to be
sure. Currency is easy to spot from the publication dates. The book from 1974 is probably not
a very good source for this paper, since nutrition and medicine have changed a lot since then.
The Atlas of the diabetic foot and the guide for postgraduates are probably not appropriate for
this project, even if they're reliable sources of information.

Journal/Magazine articles
When searching for journal or magazine articles, the abstract often helps you decide if the
article is appropriate to your information need.

For example, if you need some basic information on sea urchins, the following two articles might
be good enough. Notice where these articles are published. Article #1 is from the newspaper
Morning Star and Article #2 is from Business Week. These are both considered popular
sources. The articles have been written for the general public.

#1


Focus on: Starfish and sea urchins
Morning Star; Wilmington, N.C.; Mar 11, 2002
Abstract: Starfish and sea urchins are described. Their diets and habitats are also
discussed.

#2


Save a Sea Urchin, Restore a Reef?
Business Week; New York; August 13, 2001; John Carey; Irene M. Kunii
Abstract: In the Caribbean, scientists are using sea urchins to eat the algae that grow
on coral reefs.

On the other hand, if you're writing a paper on the economic aspects of the sea urchin industry
or how sea urchins affect other life forms, the following articles would probably be more
appropriate. Once again notice the source of these articles. Article #3 is from Rural Sociology
and Article #4 is from Ecological Monographs. These are both considered scholarly journals.
Also the abstracts both mention research, which indicates that they have a more scholarly focus
than articles #1 and #2.

#3 Flexible production on the working waterfront: The social origins of the northwest
Atlantic sea urchin industry
Rural Sociology; College Station; Dec 2001; Sean R. Lauer
Abstract: The beginnings and development of the northwest Atlantic sea urchin industry
are studied. Research is presented on the ability of established firms to market their
product on an international level.

#4 Effects of sea urchins (Parechinus angulosus) on recruits and juveniles of abalone
(Haliotis midae)
Ecological Monographs; Durham; Feb 2002; E. Day; G. M. Branch
Abstract: Interactions between sea urchins (Parechinus angulosus) and both recruits
and juveniles of the abalone (Haliotis midae) are studied. Their impact on community
ecology is reported.



Evaluating Web Pages

Because there is no quality control for the Web, you have to evaluate Web pages much more
carefully than you do library resources. Often there is no way of finding out who the author of a
Web page is, when it was published or last updated, or the sources consulted in compiling the
page. You need to be especially careful when using Web pages as information sources. You
may wonder why we spent so much time talking about URLs in Lesson 4. Being able to identify
the domain code of a Web page can go a long way toward explaining the authority, purpose,
and objectivity of a page.

Generally, .edu and .gov sites are probably the most reliable for information, but even with
these you have to be careful. Remember that many personal Web pages are hosted on .edu
sites (often represented with a tilde, ~), and government sites may be biased toward that
particular agency's agenda.

.org sites can have lots of valuable information, but they're often run by special interest groups
who have a specific agenda. They may not be the most objective source.

.com sites are the most varied type of domain. They can be very helpful, accurate, and reliable
sources of information, and they can also be full of lies, misconceptions, half-truths, and hoaxes.

Sometimes, the domain code is the only thing separating one site from another.
For example, if you're trying to get federal student aid, you need to fill out a FAFSA (Free
Application for Federal Student Aid) form. The official site for these forms can be found at http://
www.fafsa.ed.gov/. You can also go to http://www.fafsa.org and get all kinds of different student
aid information for free from a non-profit site. If, however, you mistype the URL and go to http:/
/www.fafsa.com, you will find a commercial site that will charge you $49.99 to fill out this free
government form. This is one example where examining the URL is very important.

Evaluating Web Pages-- Three Quick Examples

Take a brief look at these three Web pages and try to answer the following questions:

1.
Sample : www.dhmo.org -- What is Dihydrogen Monoxide? What are some of the
dangers associated with it?
2.
Sample 2: www.gatt.org -- This is the Website for which organization?
3.
Sample 3: www.martinlutherking.org -- What is the purpose of this site?

After you have answered these questions, go to the next page...

Three Examples (from the previous page)

Make sure you've looked at the three sites on the previous page before you read any further...

1. Sample 1 (www.dhmo.org): What is Dihydrogen Monoxide? What are some of the dangers
associated with it? From reading the information on this Website, it would appear that DHMO
is indeed a dangerous substance. And everything on this page is absolutely true: DHMO really
can kill a person in small quantities, it really is a major component of acid rain, and it really
can cause severe burns in gas form. What this site leaves out, however, is that DHMO is
better known by its more common name, water. The purpose of this site is to show people (by
example) how much you can mislead someone without ever lying. It's a very important thing to
keep in mind when you search the Web for information. Many Websites are not very objective
and will try to shock you into supporting a certain cause by leaving out important details.

2. Sample 2 (www.gatt.org):This is the Website for which organization? It looks like this is the
Website for the World Trade Organization. (The WTO icon is in the upper right hand corner and
many links to WTO information.) However, compare http://www.gatt.org with http://www.wto.org
and something looks fishy. The gatt site is a replica of the WTO site, but it's not sponsored by
the World Trade Organization. Actually, if you look at any of the pages on the gatt site, you'll
see that it's actually quite critical of the World Trade Organization. The purpose of the gatt site is
(1) to trick people into thinking they're reading the WTO site, and (2) to convince people that the
WTO is a bad thing. It's not entirely clear who really is sponsoring this site, which also brings up
the question of authority. It's not very objective in its endeavor, either. (Then again, the WTO
site is not going to be very objective, either, since they have their own agenda.)

3. Sample 3 (www.martinlutherking.org): What is the purpose of this site? On first glance,
it seems that this is a Website dedicated to providing information about Martin Luther King
and the civil rights movement. However, it doesn't take too much digging to see that this site
lacks objectivity in the extreme. A little notice on the bottom of the page tells you that this
site is hosted by Stormfront (with a link to that organization's own Website) which happens
to be a white supremacist organization. Clearly the purpose of this site is not to objectively
inform people about history or civil rights issues, but to argue an extreme position with regard
to minorities in the United States. In short, it is a hate site masquerading as an educational
resource.

These are just three small examples of the ways people can be taken in by information
presented on the Web. There are countless other ways, but I hope by now you realize
how important it is to thoroughly evaluate sources you find on the Web.

Applying the Six Evaluation Criteria to a Web Page

In your assignment for this lesson, you will be asked to apply the six evaluation criteria to a
Web page. Here's an example. For my study of the economic effects of the Indian Ocean
Tsunami, I found the following page: http://www.udel.edu/DRC/Quick_Response_Studies/
2004_Tsunami.html.

Accuracy: As far as I can tell, the information on the page is consistent with other sources. I
can't tell if the information has been edited or not, but my guess is that it hasn't been published
in any periodical and originally appeared on the Web.

Authority: The information comes from the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center
(this is confirmed by the URL, www.udel.edu.) The page clearly identifies who was involved
in this project and there are links that explain what the DRS is and what it does. As disaster
researchers, they definitely seem to know what they're talking about.

Purpose: The purpose of this page is to present the results of their study to students,
researchers, and the general public.

Currency: There is no date on this page beyond December, 2004 (the date of the tsunami.)
Although it was clearly written some time after that date, they don't say when. It's probably not
the most recent source of information I could find.

Objectivity: Since this page is from a university research organization, it appears to be
relatively objective. If they have an agenda, I couldn't tell from this page, which simply
presented facts about their methods of research.

Appropriateness: Although this page has lots of interesting information, it really didn't do much
to help answer my research question.