Evaluating the information you are going to use in your assignments is a key part of the research process. You’ll need to think critically about the academic quality of the information you have found and its relevance to your work. This is particularly important if you are using information from the internet and from more obscure unpublished sources.
Qualities of different information formats
Different information types have particular qualities and publishing processes which will affect the way that you can use them for your academic work. The table below outlines some of these.
|Journals||Regularly published, often monthly or quarterly, containing articles on a particular academic subject. Presents new research. Often critically reviewed by experts (look out for the term peer - reviewed).|
|Academic book||A substantial text on a particular subject that can take several years to publish. Whilst an academic book can offer an authoritative, extensive and detailed overview of a subject there may be more up to date information available from other sources such as journal articles.|
|Newspapers||A regular publication containing current events, informative articles, diverse features and advertising. May be electronic. However newspapers can be written for particular audiences so information may be sensationalised and not always balanced or well researched.|
|Archive item||Archives often include unique documents, sometimes hand written. Valuable because of their association with a notable person or organisation.Primary source of information about a person or organisation. Some collections are now digitised.|
|Websites||have many functions, such as personal, social, political, educational and commercial.Electronic.Quick access to basic factual and practical information which can be regularly updated. Also good for networking and sharing.Often vary in academic quality and need to be carefully evaluated. Content and layout can be changed regularly without notice.|
|Feature Film||Could be the object of analysis.Categorised in a variety of different genres, including romance, historical, horror and comedy. Commonly streamed online.|
You can also use the following criteria as a checklist to help you evaluate the information you need. Click on each tab to find out more.
Don't take the facts that you read for granted.
The accuracy of the information you have found is also influenced by the research methodology used by the author. You can't just assume that a research report is always error-free. There are sometimes cases of inaccurate or even fraudulent research that makes it to publication. Ask yourself:
Is it clear how the research was carried out?
Were the methods appropriate - for example the sample size, use of a control group or questionnaire design?
Are the methods they've used and their findings suitable for the point you need to evidence?
* Remember that this is only a guide to get you thinking. You should be judging information on its own merits. Sometimes academic work is valued highly merely because it emanates from a prestigious research group or is published in an important journal but it is still not appropriate for your needs. Finding out who has written and published a piece can be a useful clue as to the reliability of the information and will influence the reader's confidence in the sources you are citing in your assignments.
Even if the information you have found is of a high academic quality you still need to establish whether its subject matter is actually relevant to your research and can be used to effectively back up your arguments.
Be careful not to add irrelevant material to your bibliography just to make it seem longer!
The intended audience and level of the source: A PhD thesis might be too advanced and detailed for your current needs and a GCSE textbook too basic.
Scope and coverage: Does the source focus on the kind of information you need – is it too general or is the emphasis on an aspect of your subject area you’ve decided not to write about? Make sure you don’t get sidetracked if your time and word count are limited.
Journal abstracts, reviews and summaries can often help you to quickly work out whether it is suitable for your needs.
It is important to know when a piece of information has been published so that you can judge its currency and suitability for your needs. For many subjects that change quickly, like computing, getting up-to-date information is essential. But for other subjects with a historical context, you may need a mix of historical sources and recent academic writing.
Classic texts, such as philosophical or literary works recommended by your lecturers, may not become ‘out-of-date’ but their translations, introductions, and criticism can do.
To evaluate the currency of information you should ask yourself the following questions:
Currency of books:
You can check the date a book was published by looking on the back of the title page at the beginning of the book. Check for the date of copyright to learn when it was written. Remember that new editions often have changes that may bring the book up to date with recent developments, but reprinting old editions won’t make it current.
Currency of journal articles:
Journal articles are a lot easier to date – check the issue date in their reference, for example:
Sutcliffe, J (2000) 'Recent developments for adults with learning difficulties or disabilities: the key developments in recent reports and announcements'. Adult Learning 11(6), pp.16-19.
Websites can be harder to date, but many have copyright dates at the foot of the page. Websites change over time, so it is important to cite the date you accessed the website in your references.
It may prove impossible to find research or information that is completely objective and balances all sides of the argument. You will need to read critically and acknowledge the different positions represented, making sure you account for this when you come to use your chosen sources in assignments. If you are aware of any bias or lack of objectivity in any of your sources, it's best to state this clearly in your work.
Authors may be deliberately expressing a particular viewpoint and this is very valid if they are clear about the perspective they represent. Hidden bias, whether or not it is deliberate, can be misleading though.
Consider the following:
Before using information you find on the web for assignments and research, it is particularly important to evaluate its content and decide if it’s suitable for your purposes. How can you tell if the website you have found is reliable?
There are some key questions that you can ask yourself:
1. Can you easily identify the author of the page? It could be an individual or an organisation.
2. Can you trust the person or organisation behind this web page? What are the author's or organisation's credentials? Are they a recognised authority on the subject? Can you find the author's CV or the organisation's publications list? Are there any commerical motivations behind this website?
3. Where is the organisation from? Are their contact details and contact address clearly listed?
4. What does the URL tell you? What type of domain does it come from ?
5. Or is the website somebody's personal page or blog?
Personal pages are not necessarily unreliable but you need to investigate the author carefully. For personal pages, there is no publisher or domain owner vouching for the information.
6. Is the website regularly maintained? Look for a copyright date listed at the bottom of the page. Is the page current enough for your needs? Are all the links working?
7. Is the information detailed enough for your needs? Would it actually be better to use a book or journal article to get the information you require? Are there additional publications that you can download?
8. Is the information on the website footnoted and referenced? This is can be a good indication that the information has been well researched and you can trace back the sources they have used.