Information and Communication Technology

How to evaluate an information source

How to tell if an information source is fit for purpose.

When researching information about a topic, finding an information source is just the first stage.

If you use a search engine and keywords, you may end up with thousands of references.

If you look in a library there may be several books on the topic, each containing hundreds of pages.

So how do you evaluate an information source that you have found to filter out the incorrect, the irrelevant, the out of date, etc.

This page looks at the problem of how to evaluate information.

What is the intention of the author of the information source?

An information source may not just be trying to supply information

When evaluating an information source it is important to try and work out what the author was trying to do by making the information available.

It is not always obvious what the author's intention was, but most information sources fall into one or more of the following categories.

Advertising. This type of information is often thought of as being suspect, misleading or even totally false. That can be true in some cases, but in many countries advertisements are regulated and must conform to codes of practice and / or laws. False or misleading claims may be challenged and if the complaint is upheld the advertiser will have to change or withdraw the advertisement.

The result is that most widespread advertisements in regulated countries are likely to be factually correct in what they say.

Small scale or local advertisements may be more suspect since they are more likely to escape the notice of the regulators.

Even with regulation however, advertisers are free to promote their own products or services in the most favourable possible terms.

It is also important to know that in some countries, some advertisements may have full or partial exemptions from codes of practice and / or laws. e.g. political, religious and government bodies may not be held to the same standards as commercial advertisers.

Education. If an author's intent is to educate, they will often say so and the information will frequently be accompanied by explanations of what it means. Educational material is often thought of as being more reliable than other information sources. This true to some extent as such material is likely to attract attention from experts in the subject and be criticised if it is wrong. But, errors do not always get discovered or publicised or corrected.

in addition, an information source which is labelled as being educational does not actually have to conform to any specific set of rules. Many commercial companies produce educational material and although there is a lot of good material, some of it is biased, incorrect, or just advertising in disguise.

Entertainment. Information that is intended to entertain will often contain good factual information, but may equally well be simply made up. Distinguishing between fact and fantasy is not always easy, especially since the author may mix the two for the purpose of making the result more interesting to the reader. e.g. an article about a well known historical figure may contain factual information, mixed in with uncheckable anecdotes.

Just the facts. This sort of information is often presented in a simple to understand format with little or no comment. Alternatively, it may be in it's original, raw format so that readers can do their own analysis and come to their own conclusions. Such information will often have its original source mentioned, which may in turn give some indication of reliability.

Misinforming. Deliberate attempts to misinform people are all too common, particularly on Internet based sources. Such sources are often set up to promote a particular prejudice or to further a political argument.

Misinformation sources can also be accidental, in that the people who produce the material may be convinced that what they are saying is true, even if the evidence is strongly against their position. Sources of this type may be focused on e.g. religious views, alternative medical treatments, conspiracy theories, or opposition to anything that does not fit the author's world view.

Opinion piece. The value of an opinion piece as an information source largely depends on the expertise of the person giving the opinion. If there is reason to believe that the author is knowledgeable on the subject then their option may be a useful information source. On the other hand, they may have a vested interest in promoting a particular view of a topic, which other experts may disagree with.

Weird stuff. Sometimes information sources are just weird. Don't forget, anyone can put up a web site, publish an e-book, make a Youtube video or post to a forum. They do not have to be truthful, sensible, or even sane.

Is the author of the information source an authority?

Can you trust them?

Authority is a word that carries numerous meanings and implications, but in terms of an information source the meaning is straightforward.

Authority is a measure of the qualifications and reputation of an author,

These are not always easy to establish. e.g. a newspaper article may have an author's name attached, but it is unlikely to say anything else about them. There are however a number of pointers that may be looked for.

Citations. If an author cites (references) original sources, or other authoritative authors, or is cited by others, they are more likely to be a reliable information source. But beware of circular citations where a small group of sources just refer to each other, and also of self citation, where an author only cites their own work.

Links. This means electronic links, usually hyperlinks. Links work in a similar way to citations. If a source links to other, trusted sources, or if such sources link to it, the source is more likely to be reliable. But, as with citations, beware of circular linking and self linking. It is very easy to set up a number of web sites that all praise each other. Fraudsters and scam artists do it frequently to make their sites look genuine.

Publisher. Where a piece of information is published can often say a lot about how reliable is. At the top of the list for reliability are probably the peer-reviewed academic journals, but there are numerous other publishers who feel that they have a reputation to maintain. e.g. publishers of text books, universities and colleges, or those who maintain web sites with expert forums or impartial reviews.

Previous history. An author's career and previous publications can also be a useful guide. Someone who is well established in a field of study and who has written about a subject previously is likely to have more to lose if they produce dubious information or ideas. This does not of course mean that newcomers are not to be trusted, or that established people do not get things wrong.

Is the information source current?

Is it up to date?

An important indicator for information sources, especially for an ever changing subject like ICT, is how recent the information is.

Fortunately, most sources are dated in some way. Books, magazines and other printed material usually have a date of publication. Web sites often have article dates or there may be dates within the information itself.

Newer often means better. e.g. you would not want to purchase a new laptop based on price lists from three months ago, although you might well use a three month old review to find out how the laptop performed and what features it came with.

However, newer does not always mean better. If you are trying to find information about the history of laptops, then advertisements, reviews, consumer tests, etc. from older sources may be more appropriate.

Is the information source relevant?

Does it really fit the task which you are working on?

Relevance is a measure of how well the information fits the requirement.

Judging whether or not an information source is relevant is not always simple, but a look at keywords and similarities to other sources will usually help.

Keywords. One example of keywords is the terms that you might put into a search engine. e.g. If you are trying to find something about the history of laptops, you might enter History + Laptop.

But keywords in the context of looking for relevance is a little more complex. History and Laptop would certainly still be useful keywords when looking at information sources on the history of laptops, but so might words such as portable, notebook, tablet, or even Osborne 1 (the first portable computer).

When evaluating relevance by keywords it is useful to have one or two essential words, e.g. laptop and history, but also have a longer list of words that might be expected to occur in a suitable source. Words from the longer list may not all appear, but having several of them might indicate a relevant source.

Similarities. If you have found one or more useful information sources, the content of those sources may be used as a guide to the relevance of other sources.

e.g. if you have two sources which both give similar timelines for the history of laptops, a third source that has a similar timeline is more likely to be relevant than one that gives a different timeline or a timeline for PC development.

Making the relevance evaluation usually becomes easier as you see more sources of information about the same topic, but you must be careful not to simply accept sources that are similar. They may all be getting their information from another source which is itself wrong.

Is the information source biased?

Does it just give one side of a story?

Biased means having an unfair or unbalanced opinion. Many information sources are biased. This is not always unreasonable. e.g. If you are a Manchester United supporter, you would probably expect the Manchester United Supporters Club web site to be more in favour of Manchester United than some other football club.

On the other hand, if you want to buy a new laptop, you would probably prefer a laptop review web site to give impartial reviews.

When evaluating whether or not a source is biased you should ask yourself the following questions.

Who is the author? If the author is known to hold a particular point of view on a subject, or they work for an organisation that has an agenda in that area, then anything they write on that subject is likely to be biased.

Who are the target audience? If an author is writing to influence a particular group of people, they are likely to bias the information in a way that will make most impact on their audience. This may be to please, annoy, entertain, etc.

Why was it written? Information is written down for a wide variety of reasons. These include legal obligations, a desire to be noticed, trying to get something done, telling people about a discovery, advertising and of course, just because it's possible.

Knowing, or at least having an idea of why the information is there, can help determine if it is biased.

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