2.8 Evaluating Information Online

Evaluating information is something you do every day, whether you know it or not. You evaluate information when you determine what to write down when you’re taking notes in class, debate issues with friends, and look up new movie reviews — all this before you even start gathering information for a research project. In this section, we’ll discuss how you can more effectively evaluate and fact-check the information you encounter every day, from news stories to academic articles.

Why Evaluate Information?

Vast amounts of new information are being created every minute and it can be overwhelming to make sense of it all. So how do you know you’ve found the best information for your needs? You evaluate it! Below are some reasons why you should make thoughtful evaluation a part of your research process.

Avoid misinformation

One reason to evaluate information is to sniff out bullshit. As Bergstrom & West (2017) state,

“Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.”[1]

It’s not a good idea to blindly trust that the information you find is accurate or trustworthy. Sometimes authors will overstate the importance of an experiment or misrepresent information.

In other cases, a media outlet’s interpretation of new research may oversimplify a paper’s results. This is not always malicious or deliberate. It could be an attempt to draw more clicks with an exciting or dramatic headline, or it could just be a non-expert reporter misunderstanding the research.

This Twitter account highlights articles with deceptive titles by pointing out where research done in mice is being misrepresented by the media as directly applicable to humans.

Although avoiding misinformation is one of the first reasons you might choose to evaluate something, it’s not the only one.

Save time

Even the best, most truthful, information won’t be useful if it’s not relevant for your research project. Your time is valuable. Make sure you’re spending that time on resources you will actually be able to use.

It’s not enough just to find several peer-reviewed articles. They should also be closely related to your topic. Below are questions to consider when thinking about relevance.

  • Does it meet the requirements for your assignment? (e.g. peer reviewed articles and books only, number or type of resources)
  • Does it address your research question directly?
  • Does it add anything new to the conversation beyond what your other resources already state?

All of these things also apply to your everyday life when interacting with sources beyond formal research, such as news, forums, and social media.

Have you seen a friend share an article online and the comments exploded? How many of the commenters do you think actually read the article? Did your friend even read it before sharing? It’s easy to rely on your friend’s judgement. However, this can lead to embarrassment if you happen to get duped by a misleading post, especially if it’s something taken out of context.

In the next section we’ll dig deeper into some steps you can take to help you better evaluate information.

  1. Calling Bullshit by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West https://callingbullshit.org/


LIB 160: Information Literacy Copyright © 2019 by Iowa State University Library Instruction Services. All Rights Reserved.

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