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Tackling Information Problems (TIP): Assess reliability of information found

Information Literacy tutorial for undergraduate students

Judge the reliability of the information found

Once you decide which sources are potentially useful, you need to evaluate that information for its overall reliability and trustworthiness. A good way to go about is using a set of basic criteria for evaluating information. When used together they indicate the reliability of that piece of information. 

Six criteria for evaluating information

  1. Authority:  is the author of the information knowledgeable in the subject?
  2. Accuracy: how free from error is this information?
  3. Objectivity: is the information unbiased?
  4. Coverage: how well does this information cover the topic?
  5. Currency: when was the information published?
  6. Audience: who is this information written for?

1. Authority

Determining the knowledge and expertise of the author of information is an important aspect of evaluating the reliability of information. 

Some indications of knowledge of or expertise are:

  • a formal academic degree in a subject area;
  • professional or work-related experience - businessmen, government agency personnel, etc. have expertise on their area of work;
  • organizations, agencies, institutions, corporations with active involvement or work in a particular subject area.

 

2. Accuracy

Some indications that information is accurate are:

  • the same information can be found in other reliable sources;
  • the sources used by the author are known to be generally reliable;
  • the author of the information is known to have expertise on that subject.

Some indications that information may not be accurate are:

  • facts cannot be verified or are contradicted in other sources;
  • sources used are known to be unreliable or highly biased;
  • a list of sources used is not provided;
  • the intended audience is a general one.

3. Objectivity

It's important to establish that the information you intend to use is objective, or if it is not, to establish exactly what the point of view or bias is. There are times when information expressing a particular point of view or bias is useful, but you must use it consciously. You must know what the point of view is and why that point of view is important to your topic.

Some indications that information is objective are:

  • all relevant data is presented; even when it does not support the preferred point of view;
  • all views of an issue are presented and none are preferred;
  • all views of an issue are presented even though one is preferred;
  • the topic is presented in a clear and logical manner;
  • assertions, statements, opinions, etc. are documented;
  • a variety of reliable sources are used to support the point being made;
  • the purpose is clearly stated.

Some indications that information may not be objective are

  • only one view of an issue is presented;
  • other views of an issue are attacked or ignored;
  • not all data is presented; only data supporting the preferred point of view is presented;
  • assertions, statements, opinions are presented as facts without adequate documentation;
  • emotion-arousing language is used to persuade the audience of a point ;
  • the purpose is not clearly stated or is hidden;
  • converting the audience to a particular point of view is the primary purpose.

4. Coverage

Some indications that coverage is adequate:

  • clearly an overview of a topic or an aspect of a topic;
  • clearly an in-depth treatise or analysis of a topic;
  • clearly an in-depth analysis of a particular aspect of a topic;
  • presents new information about a topic.

Some indications that the coverage is not adequate

  • presents only one point of view;
  • clearly superficial;
  • presents only a few aspects of a topic and none are discussed fully.

5. Currency

The date information was published or produced tells you how current it is or how contemporaneous it is with the topic you are researching.

Key indicators of the currency of the information are:

  • date of copyright*;
  • date of publication;
  • date of revision or edition;
  • dates of sources cited.

* Keep in mind that books may have multiple printing dates. Therefore you need to go by the copyright date rather than a reprint date unless there is a clearly marked 'revised' date that is later than the copyright date.

6. Audience

Determining the intended audience of a particular piece of information will help you decide whether or not the information will be too basic, too technical, too general, or just right for your needs. The intended audience can also indicate the potential reliability of the item because some audiences require more documentation than others. For example, publications produced for scholarly audiences are generally produced by experts and go through a peer evaluation process. Publications produced for the mass market frequently are not produced by experts and generally do not go through an evaluation process. 

Some indications of the intended audience are:

  • how-to information or current practices in 'xyz' are frequently written by experts for practitioners in that field (trade publications);
  • substantive and serious presentations of a topic with not too much technical language are generally written for the educated lay audience;
  • popular language, fairly simple presentations of a topic, little or no analysis, inexpensive tools can indicate a general audience.