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Thinking Critically about Information: Reliability

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1 Thinking Critically about Information: Reliability
Kevin Klipfel, Information Literacy Coordinator, California State University, Chico.

2 Thinking Critically About Sources
Is this source reliable? Is this the best source for my current purposes? There are two major kinds of critical thinking involved in evaluating sources. The first kind of critical thinking has to do with whether or not a particular source is likely to be reliable – that is, whether it seems to represent the world accurately, according to our best understanding of how things are at a particular time and place. The second kind of critical thinking – whether or not a particular source is useful for your current research purposes, is actually a very different question, one that will be addressed in the module “Thinking Critically about Information: Source Types.” Both are important skills you’ll need to develop to think effectively about using information in your college research, and everyday lives. But for now, let’s just focus on the question: how can I tell whether or not I should believe what a particular source is saying (its reliability)?

3 Scholarly vs. “Popular” Sources
Style “Popular” Articles “Scholarly” Articles Written by? Non-Experts (Usually. For example, a newspaper or magazine reporter.) Experts in the field (For example: a professor or research scientist.) Written for? A general audience Other experts in the field Written How? General, “Everyday” language Technical, “Scholarly” language In the most basic sense, there are two kinds of source types: popular and scholarly materials. Popular articles – the kinds of articles you might find in, for example, Time, Cosmopolitan, GQ, or The New York Times - are usually written by journalists who aren’t necessarily experts in the subject matter they’re writing about. For example, a GQ writer hired to write about football concussions may be neither an expert on football nor concussions. Most likely, they’re just an engaging writer interested in writing about that topic, or they’ve been assignment to write about that topic, for whatever reason. This being the case, we need to treat what they have to say about that topic with a healthy degree of skepticism: they are, after all, not experts in the subject matter they’re writing about, and so there’s a certain possibility that what they’re saying isn’t entirely accurate. On the other hand, scholarly articles - which are basically just magazine articles that appear in more scholarly magazines called “journals” - are written by experts on a given subject matter. People are considered “experts“ in a particular field when they have secured the proper credentials denoting expertise within a particular domain (for example, a doctor writing about cancer research might have an M.D. from a reputable university, or a scientist with a PhD from a well-respected university writing about biology). They are people who have devoted their lives to studying a particular subject, and have trained extensively, by learning the methods that individuals within a particular field take the best way to produce good, or “reliable” results in that field. Just like doctors train in the “methods” of being a doctor, your professors in English, philosophy, biology, political science, and so forth, have similarly trained in the methodologies that experts in their particular area have crafted and refined, sometimes over centuries, for how to do good research in that field. This is what tends to separate them from “non-experts” people who really just aren’t as knowledgeable about a subject as someone who has engaged in the serious study of a particular field according to the most rigorous standards. Now, although the particular methodologies will vary between disciplines (for example, the standards of evidence for English may be very different from physics), there are some general features most discipline will adhere to that will help us determine whether something – ranging from a website you see on the internet, to a pundit you see on television, to an article that looks very scholarly – is reliable.

4 Scholarly vs. “Popular” Sources
Reliability “Popular” Articles “Scholarly” Articles Editorial Review? Limited – Non-expert Rigorous – “Peer Reviewed” by other scholars References? Not Usually – though sometimes the article will be based on scholarship that is mentioned in the article Yes – most claims the author makes are explicitly verified through footnotes and citations Trustworthy? It depends - look for articles based in scholarship) Infallible? No. But pretty much as good as it gets Who an article is written by, and who its intended audience is, plays a role in determining its reliability – whether or not the source is trustworthy, and we should believe what it’s saying. The reason for this is that a piece will have different standards of evidence that it has to live up to, depending on who it is written for. One of the reasons that so-called “scholarly materials” are considered the most reliable sources, is that in order for something to be published in them, it has to meet an extremely high burden of proof, much higher than your average magazine or newspaper article (it has to be “peer-reviewed”). This is more or less why your professors would like you to use these kinds of sources in your papers and research: because they’re the most likely to be accurate.

5 “Scholarly” Articles and Reliability
Scholarly articles are typically preferred for research because they’re the most likely to be reliable or trustworthy. You can easily verify what they say (with footnotes, references, etc.). They provide empirical evidence for the stuff they say (especially in the natural and social sciences). They argue, using the rules of logic, for the stuff they say (especially in the humanities).

6 Other Types of Sources Other types of don’t necessarily do this:
Editorials may just express the options of an editor (without being backed by reasons and verifiable evidence). Popular sources (like magazine articles) may not be peer reviewed and do not usually provide references. Television and political pundits– how “scholarly” are they”?

7 Reliability Factors: Verifiability
Verifiability: maybe the most important criterion. Can I check (i.e. “verify”) what this author is saying. Are they providing evidence for their claims. Are they arguing for their positions? Is the evidence they use in support of their arguments good evidence? Are their arguments logically sound? Underlying question: Is the author merely stating their opinions or is there good reason to believe what they say?

8 Currency: Is this Source Relevant?
How recent is the source? Have there been new breakthroughs on this subject since my article has been written? If not, the article is probably current.

9 Reliability Factors: Pedigree
Who wrote it? What is the affiliation of the author? A university? Newspaper? Anonymous blogger? Where does the article appear? Scholarly journal? Is it peer reviewed? Is it a top journal in its field?

10 Pedigree: Top Journals
You can check if a particular article was published in a top journal in its field by using Google Citation Metrics (http://scholar.google.com/citations?view_op=top_venues&hl=en). Just go to Google Scholar and click on the Metrics button at the topic of the page. This will allow you to click on the highest cited journals within particular subject areas to see which are considered the “best” – measured, roughly, by the amount of times other scholars in those and other fields cite the articles published in those journals.

11 Is it Peer Reviewed? There’s no way to know for sure just by looking at an article. The most sure way you can find out is by using one of our library resources: Ulrich’s Web. With books, the best thing to do is see if it was published by a reputable academic press (e.g., University of California, Oxford University Press, etc.). If you’re having trouble figuring out if a book or an article is peer-reviewed, the best thing to do is ask a librarian.

12 Reliability: A Matter of Degree
The best way to think of reliability is that reliability falls on a continuum.

13 Tastiness … A Continuum.
Truly Delicious Least PleasantThing Ever Eating In-N-Out Burger! PB & J What is a continuum? Eating Ramen. Every day. For 4 years.

14 Reliability … A Continuum.
Most Reliable Least Reliable Peer Reviewed “Popular” Articles Based in Research Articles Not Based in Research

15 Reliability Continuum … with examples.
Most Reliable Article from OK Journal in field Least Reliable Peer Reviewed Popular article citing lots of scientific studies Article from Top Journal in field Articles Not Based in Research That Cosmo Article

16 Contact a Librarian And if you’re having any trouble evaluating information, don’t forget to contact a librarian: we’re more than happy to help! For questions about this module, or how to incorporate this module into specific courses, contact: Kevin Klipfel, Information Literacy Coordinator, California State University, Chico. Contact:


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