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Info Literacy Curriculum #3 - Evaluating Online Information

What are our criteria for evaluating information we find online, and how do we put them into practice?
by

Jared Dunn

on 14 May 2011

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Transcript of Info Literacy Curriculum #3 - Evaluating Online Information

Why Evaluate? Why is evaluating online information
a crucial skill? Who wrote this document? Do they have any claim to expertise on the topic?

How about the publisher or institution? Is their profile in line with the claims of expertise being made?

What do others say about the author or institution? What is their reputation?

What about tone and style? Does it read like an authoritative and knowledgeable person wrote it? Evaluation Criteria What to Look For Case Study: Wikipedia How do we evaluate sources? What specific details inform evaluation? How to evaluate a Wikipedia article Evaluation: Your Needs It's not just about the document, it's about
what you need from the document. Next Steps Integrating evaluation into your
daily information regimen. Authority Does the author or the publisher have a detectable bias or conflict of interest?

Is the document about a notably controversial or contentious topic?

Is there a commercial interest involved? Is the site or its advertisers trying to sell you something? Is that something related to the content?

Is there an editing or vetting process? Is it transparent and publicly documented? Objectivity Does it cite sources? Accurately and fairly? Do the sources actually support the claims advanced?

Do the claims advanced make sense? Is a cogent and coherent argument being made?

Does the document jibe well with other reputable sources on the same topic?

Do the facts used and truth claims made check out? Accuracy / Verifiability Coverage Usability Relevance How much information and what level of detail and expertise are you after? The question of whether a document "covers" a topic adequately will depend upon what you need from it.

Do you just want a basic overview?

Do you need a scholarly source for an assignment?

Do you need information to accomplish a practical task?

Determining what and how much you need ahead of time will make evaluating documents much easier. Even if a source has adequate information, it might not be the right one for you.

Is it easy to read?

Is it well-organized visually and
conceptually?

Is it provided in a format you can work with or use?

Good sources of information should be user-friendly and well-designed as well as accurate, timely, and authoritative. A source may be nominally "about" the topic you're interested in, but is it actually relevant to your information needs? Information Literacy Lesson 3 Evaluating Online Info Is this the sort of information that needs to be current to be relevant and accurate?

If so, how current? Up to the minute, like news, weather, or finance? Wthin a few months, like for tech? Within a few years, like science and much scholarly work?

Even if currency isn't strictly required for accuracy or relevance, does when it was produced color or inform your interpretation of it? Currency Most of the criteria mentioned are about context in one way or another, and that makes it all the more urgent to emphasize its importance.

The key to evaluating information online is to constantly be aware of its context, across a wide variety of measures, from politics to economics to personalities to institutions to geography to era to social setting and on and on.

This may seem daunting, but we do it all day every day on some level. The key is to train yourself to be more conscious, vigilant, systematic, and intentional about it. Context Authority In most cases, look for a time/date stamp at the bottom of a post or somewhere on the page. These are ubiquitous and standard in online media at this point, and the lack of them is your first red flag from a currency standpoint.

If this is absent, check the bottom of the page for a "last updated" sort of message.

Does the site "look" current? Web users have a good acquired sense of what an "old-looking" website design is, and that's another signal to check the fine print.

Old-looking or static sites are not necesarily out of date content-wise (and in fact many academic and government sites are notoriously behind the times in this aspect), but you do want to double check when the currency info isn't obvious. Accuracy / Verifiability Context Objectivity As above, all of these things we're talking about are context, but there are other,
more general considerations here as well.

Especially in the world of the social web, we have to think not only of the reputation
of the author or source, but also the social context in which we found it.

How did we get to this source? Who recommended it, and what is their point of view? What were other people saying about it?

Again, these are judgments we make unconsciously all the time, and that probably
decide what we do and don't read before we even get to the point of applying
the other standards. As such, we should work to be more aware of them, in
a world where information is increasingly a social phenomenon, and where social
life is increasingly saturated with information. Look for citations, quotations, and links. Follow up on a few to see if they are
being employed accurately and in good faith.

If you notice a controversial claim or a startling fact or statistic, try to see if you can corroborate it elsewhere. If you can't, it's time to start getting suspicious.

Keep an eye on the construction of arguments and claims. Are leaps of logic or polemic being employed? To what purpose? Rhetoric isn't a reason to dismiss a source by itself, but it is a reason to be on guard. Look at the other documents or authors on the site. Are a variety of points of
view represented? Are controversial issues treated even-handedly?

Look at the "about" page, who they link to, and whatever else you can glean
about their context, affiliations, and commitments. Then compare this to the
article, and try to detect any potential conflicts of interest.

Look at the ads / advertisers or other sources of funding, and compare them to
the content in the same way.

Try to get an idea of the editorial or vetting process, if any. Is it transparent? Is
there information about it on the masthead or in the about section? Currency Look for author information, either at the end of the article or elswhere on the
site. If you can't find information on the site, go offsite to Google or LinkedIn or
wherever you can find enough information to judge whether the author is a
credible authority on the subject. Credentials, body of work, and reputation are
all relevant.

Do a similar search for information on the publisher or institution, if any. Are they a legit organization? Is their work, mission, and reputation in line with the claims being made?

Links. Who does the page link to, and who links to them? Does it all add up and make sense? You can use Google with the [links:] operator to find out the latter.

Keep an eye on grammar, style, spelling, personal attacks, and other stylistic indicators of an author lacking authority. In this section, we'll take
a look at some Wikipedia
content in light of the criteria
set out above. Authority, Currency: Much of Wikipedia's authority is derived from its processes, many of which we've seen here. Still, the Revision History lets you see who has edited an article and what changes they made, and often you can get profile information and a complete history of the user's edits elsewhere on Wikipedia, and thus get a good sense of their reputation and authority. The revision history also allows for exhaustive documentation of the currency of any portion of an article. Accuracy / Verifiability: Each claim in an article must be exhaustively sourced, and all of the
sources are linked at the end so you can check them for yourself. Objectivity: Wikipedia has a built in system for flagging articles with disputed
objectivity or that have been the subject of controversy or repeated
vandalism. Watching for these flags gives you the context you need
to be on alert for bias or misinformation. Authority: Wikipedia cultivates an authoritative, neutral tone, which makes departures from that tone easy to detect. Said departures tend
to indicate either vandalism or an inexperienced author, and are
a red flag to be vigilant about the content of a given article. Objectivity, Authority, Accuracy: The Talk: page for a Wikipedia article speaks to several aspects of evaluation. Editor reputations are made in this space. Facts, sources, arguments, and claims are publicly checked and criticized, and the process by which the document is written and claims are made is transparently and publicly displayed. Case Study: Astroturfing An illustration of the need to be on guard about institutional context and bias is the phenomenon of Astroturfing. The term was coined to denote the creation of dummy grassroots organizations (Astroturf = fake grass) by corporations, lobbyists, political groups,
and others with an agenda around a controversial issue.

Usually such groups will have a suitably benign and public-spirited sounding name and seem
unimpeachably objective and neutral at first glance, as they are in fact designed to do. You
can only see their true colors by digging into their associations or carefully watching their output over time for bias.

A related case is Greenwashing, which involves marketing efforts by corporations and governments to claim a pro-environmental reputation without actually putting substantial investment into environmental or ecological projects.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astroturfing | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwashing Is it a silly Top-10 list, when you're in need of hard data?

Is it a 500-page government report, when you only need a few simple facts and figures?

Knowing what kind of information you need will help you to evaluate the relevance of documents, and save a lot of time and effort in the long run. The Internet is great! It has democratized information and culture and thrown the doors wide open
to allow anyone to contribute their expertise and creativity to a vibrant global conversation.

So, what's the problem? Well, the internet has democratized information and culture, etc., etc.,
and living in a democracy also comes with burdens and responsibilities. In this case, the burden is
dealing with information overload, and the responsibility is to fight against the unchecked spread of
misinformation and lies that is the downside of the wonderful openness and connectedness of the
digital world.

The best answer to both problems is information literacy, and in particular, adopting good information
evaluation practices in the online sphere. And that's what we're going to learn how to do here. It'll
make your life easier, and it'll make the world a better place. It's a total win-win. The final step, and the hardest part, is putting these principles into practice in your day-to-day life.

There are no easy answers on that, except to just start trying them out when you run across chances to do so, and see how they work for you. They are a little extra effort at first, but in the long run they'll save you time and grief and make your experience with information and the internet a far better one.

With time, you'll internalize many of them, and they'll become automatic and almost second-nature. When you get there, you've got it made, and then it's time to start
thinking about how to pay it forward and teach others what you've learned.
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