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Information Literacy Toolkit

Introduction

The information on this page can be shared with students to help them as they research or work with unfamiliar sources. When searching online, it can be hard to discriminate from a scholarly article or a book review, etc. 

Evaluating Books

Title

Words used in the title can often give you clues about a book's intended audience or purpose. Scholarly book's usually have titles that sound more formal. For example, books with titles like Complexity and Evolution: Toward a New Synthesis for Economics have a much greater likelihood of being scholarly as compared to books with titles like Business Cat: Money, Power, Treats.

Publication Date

Timeliness and currency are important when selecting a book for your research. Whether or not a book is considered current will vary greatly depending on the discipline and the particular topic. Additionally, since it can take years to write and publish a book, if you're looking for the most up-to-date information available, you may need to consult other types of sources that have a faster publication cycle.

Citations

Authors of scholarly books cite their sources using formal citation styles like APA, MLA, Chicago, or others. These references may appear as parenthetical citations, footnotes, endnotes, or bibliographies. When evaluating the quality of a scholarly book, it's often useful to examine these citations to get a better sense of the relationship between the book and other scholarly work on the topic.

Tone and Language

The text of scholarly books will usually have a more serious tone and use formal or technical language that may not be easily understood by a general audience.

Author/Editor

Scholarly books are almost always written by professors or researchers affiliated with universities or research institutes. Some scholarly books, often called edited books or edited volumes, are co-authored by a group of people who are each responsible for a particular chapter. The editors of edited volumes are also professors or researchers.

Most scholarly books list their authors' and/or editors' credentials (i.e., affiliations with universities or research institutes, previous publications, and sometimes academic degrees). This information can be useful in determining whether someone is considered an authority on the topic they're writing about.

Publisher

There are several different categories of publishers, each specializing in particular types of book. A quick Google search can tell you which of the following categories a publisher belongs to:

Types of Books

University Press

Scholarly books, e.g. Harvard University Press

Professional titles

Professional, technical, reference, textbooks, e.g. Wiley, Scholastic

Research Center/Institute titles

Scholarly (often reporting research produced by members of the center or institute), e.g. Pew Research Center; Brookings Institution Press

Commercial/Trade Publications

Popular/mass-marketed, e.g. Random House, Penguin

Open Access Publications

Scholarly, Textbooks, e.g. Muse Open, National Academies Press

Scholarly Journals

Professors often suggest that students include articles from scholarly, refereed, or peer-reviewed journals as resources for their research papers. These articles are authored by experts in their fields and reviewed by peers before getting accepted for publication. See the information below to help you distinguish between the three main types of periodicals.
 

Popular Magazine

e.g., Time Magazine

Appearance: Highly visual, lots of advertising and photos.

Audience: General readership

Content: Popular magazines contain feature stories, reviews, and editorials, and may report research findings as news.

Articles:

  • Are meant to entertain and inform.
  • Use popular language, geared toward the average reader.
  • Written by staff writers (not always named), or freelance writers.
  • Generally short in length (1-10 pages).
  • Rarely include references or footnotes.
  • Evaluated by editorial staff, but may not be reviewed by experts in the field.

 

Scholarly Journal

e.g. Journal of American Studies

Appearance: Sober design, little advertising, mostly text with some graphs and tables.

Audience: Students, researchers, scholars, specialists in a particular subject.

Content: Scholarly journals contain original research, theoretical issues, and new developments in the subject discipline.

Articles:

  • Present the results of original research performed by the authors; often include a review of existing literature on the topic.
  • Include specialized vocabulary of a subject discipline.
  • Written by subject specialists identified by name, with degrees and academic affiliation usually given.
  • Generally medium-length to long (5-20 pages or more).
  • Meticulously documented; extensive references and/or footnotes.
  • Most often peer-reviewed by other authorities in the field to validate findings.

 

Trade Journal

e.g. Steel Times International

Appearance: Visual; some advertising related to the field, photos.

Audience: Members of a particular trade, profession or industry.

Content: Trade and professional journals contain news, trends, technical and practical aspects of the trade, profession or industry.

Articles:

  • May present industry news and/or original research.
  • Include specialized vocabulary of a trade, profession or industry.
  • Written by staff writers and freelancers, usually professionals in the field.
  • Generally short to medium-length (1-20 pages)
  • May contain a few references or footnotes.
  • Evaluated by editorial staff that may include experts in the field, but not peer-reviewed.

Please note that not all articles found in magazines, or journals, will contain the noted characteristics. Use careful judgement in determining if an article in a scholarly journal actually presents in-depth, original research, or if an article in a magazine or trade journal goes beyond presenting news and current trends

Web Pages

Ask yourself these questions to help you critically evaluate a web page:
 

  1. Does the web page contain enough information to be useful?
     
  2. Is the information current and actively updated? If current information is important for your research:
  • Check to see if the content dates are current.
  • If there are links on the page, are many of them dead?
  • Do the links go to current material?

Example of a current webpage: American Cancer Society
A non-current / outdated webpage: Dole Kemp '96 and Yahoo 
 

  1. Is the web page biased or objective?
  • Check the internet for further information about and by the author of the page (a person or an organization). If it is obvious there is a particular agenda, make sure you note that if you choose to cite the page as an example of a bias.
  • Is there inflammatory language? If so, the page is biased.
  • Is the page trying to sell the reader a product or service (Mercola.com), or is it reporting on information (WebMD.com)?
    The first example may not be objective due to advertising, the second is unbiased or objective. If there is advertising on the page, can it be differentiated from the informational content?
  • Is the page trying to convince the reader of one point of view or a particular agenda?  Or does the page urge the reader to consider both sides of the argument?

Note: Most information has some sort of bias that you may either agree or disagree with. It is important to identify the bias and understand how that applies to your research if you choose to cite a page.

Objective web page:

Consumer Reports

Biased web pages:

Fox News
Natural Resources Defense Council

Biased and misleading web page:

Blondes to 'die out in 200 years'
This page is not only biased, but it presents incorrect information. See question #7 to learn more about identifying fraudulent websites.
 

  1. Is the author or organization an authoritative source? Is the information reliable?
  • Is the author's or organization's name and contact information clearly visible? Is there a biography or an "about" page?
  • What are the author's qualifications, education, occupation? Is the organization reputable?
  • Is there a bibliography or a source list? Are there footnotes or links to reputable cited sources?

Search for the author/organization on other sites to check authority. Some websites have "accredited" stamps.

    

Authoritative source:

Secondhand Smoke 

Non-authoritative source:

The Facts About Secondhand Smoke
 

  1. What kind of page is it? Who is the intended audience?
  • An institutional site? Do you recognize the institution?

Some official URLs:
    University or other educational sites (.edu)
    Government (.gov, .mil)
    Non-Profit (.org) [no longer just for non-profits, please check.]

  • Personal webpage or blog? If so, investigate the author, since there is no larger institution vetting the content.    

Some blog URLs:
    tumblr.com,
    wordpress.com,
    blogspot.com,
    blogger.com

            Visit ICANN [Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers] for a list of the most common top level domains.

  • Judging from the tone and type of page, who is the intended audience? For example, if it is a personal blog, it may be intended for a niche audience. If it is a governmental site, it is intended for widespread public viewing.

Use Whois.net to see who has registered the domain name of the URL
 

  1. Is the information on the web site reproduced from another source?
  • Make sure the information is unaltered.
  • Look for copyright permissions to reproduce, and the link to the original resource. The web page may have illegally reproduced an original document.
     
  1. Is the web page a hoax, spoof, or joke site? Is it in any way fraudulent?

Watch groups scan the web for misinformation, fraudulent, and fanatical web sites. Virtual Chase maintains an updated list of these groups.

Example:

http://www.dhmo.org/ is an intentionally fraudulent webpage that has the appearance of being official. Note the fake EAC logo:

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        Here is the official logo of the actual governmental organization.