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Information Searching Guide: Evaluating information

Use this guide to study the principles of scientific information searching: narrowing down a topic, choosing the right search terms and information sources and evaluating the search results. Mastering these valuable skills will prove useful in your studie

About evaluating the information sources

In research, source criticism is of paramount importance, whether the matter is information reliability, content or relevance. It is important to pay attention especially with internet material, because the publications are not reviewed or monitored by any external service. Electronic material acquired for university libraries (e-books, article and reference databases, dictionaries) are almost always quality materials that meet specific basic criteria, but that doesn't remove the students' own responsibility of evaluating the information critically.  

Additionally, it is good to remember that second-hand citing is not desirable - always try to acquire the original source of information (primary source) and avoid referencing another person's research via an article referencing said article (second-hand source). For example, do not reference an article found in a thesis by citing the thesis, but find the original article and use it as your source.

Evaluating information sources

Pages of an old book.I

Image: Jonne Renvall / Tampere University

Evaluating information sources can be tricky, especially when it comes to online sources. Here are some things to consider when you are looking for information online:

Author:

  • Is the material produced by a known agency, organisation or expert?
  • Does the creator have authority in the field or topic in question?
  • Is the author known? For example, the articles in Wikipedia do not have a named author, and they are not suitable sources for academic study.

Validity

  • Is the information thoroughly researched, objective and reliable?
  • Have the sources been marked correctly? Is there a bibliography?
  • Has it been peer-reviewed by an expert in the field?

Content

  • Is the text content objective or subjective?
  • Is the information factual or does it represent the author's personal opinion?
  • Is the information unique, or can similar or more accurate information be found elsewhere?

Target audience

  • Who is the information intended for?
  • Does the information match your information need?

Source: Guide to information retrieval [WWW]. Espoo, Aalto University Library. [cited 14.7.2014]. Available: http://libguides.aalto.fi/informationretrieval

How to evaluate books

Here are some things to consider when you use books as source material.

Publisher: Who is the publisher?

  • The Finnish Publication Forum classifies the book publishers (also journals, series, conferences)
  • University Presses publish mainly scientic publications.

Author: What do you know about the author?

  • Is the author a professor in highly valued university or what are the author’s credentials?
  • Does the author have authority in the field or topic

Content: Does it contain bibliography and in-text references?

Scientific articles

There are several types of articles in scientific journals. Usually peer reviewed are original research articles and review articles.

  • Scientific articles, also called original articles, are often research articles. Research articles usually follow the IMRD format, which is used in research reports.

o Introduction
o Materials and methods
o Results
o Discussion

  • Review articles provide a comprehensive summary of research on a certain topic as well as a perspective on the state of the field and where it is heading. The research articles included in the review are evaluated and analyzed carefully.

Scientific journal articles are peer-reviewed, which means that they are independently reviewed and evaluated by two or more experts within the field. These experts make a recommendation to the journal editor on acceptance or rejection. Some content of the scientific journals (such as letters, editorials, commentaries, book reviews etc.) may not be peer-reviewed.

See tips for reading scientific articles in "How to Read an Academic Article" (Klein, P. 2010.)

The difference between scholarly journal, trade magazine/journal and popular magazine

Periodical is a term used to describe any publication that is published multiple times (periodically). Periodicals include materials such as popular magazines, scholarly journals, and newspapers.

It is important to understand the difference between a popular and a scholarly periodical. When you are doing research, most of your sources should be scholarly.

Often popular periodicals are called magazines and scholarly periodicals are called journals. Many times it will be acceptable to use some popular material, but research papers should not be based solely on popular literature.

Explore this visual aid describing the key elements of an academic journal article: Anatomy of a Scholarly Article

 

Criteria

Popular Magazine

Trade Journal

Scholarly Journal / Academic Journal

Example

Helsingin Sanomat, La Gazette, New York Times, Suomen Kuvalehti.

Chemical Week, InfoWorld Daily News, Markkinointi & Mainonta, Metallitekniikka

Harvard Business Review, Journal of the American Mathematical Society, The Lancet

Content

Secondary discussion of someone else's research; may include personal narrative or opinion; general information, purpose is to entertain or inform.

Current news, trends and products in a specific industry; practical information for professionals working in the field or industry.

In-depth, primary account of original findings written by the researcher(s); very specific information, with the goal of scholarly communication.

Author

Author is frequently a journalist paid to write articles, may or may not have subject expertise.

Author is usually a professional in the field, sometimes a journalist with subject expertise.

Author's credentials are provided; usually a scholar or specialist with subject expertise. Author is not paid a fee for writing the article.

Audience

General public; the interested non-specialist.

Professionals in the field; the interested non-specialist.

Scholars, researchers, and students.

Language

Vocabulary in general usage; easily understandable to most readers.

Specialized terminology or jargon of the field, but not as technical as a scholarly journal.

Specialized terminology or jargon of the field; requires expertise in subject area.

Graphics

Graphs, charts and tables; lots of glossy advertisements and photographs.

Photographs; some graphics and charts; advertisements targeted to professionals in the field.

Graphs, charts, and tables; very few advertisements and photographs.

Layout & Organization

Informal; may include non-standard formatting. May not present supporting evidence or a conclusion

Informal; articles organized like a journal or a newsletter. Evidence drawn from personal experience or common knowledge.

Formal; includes the article abstract, goals and objectives, methodology, results (evidence), discussion, conclusion, and bibliography.

Reliability

Articles are evaluated by editorial staff, not experts in the field; edited for format and style.

Articles are evaluated by editorial staff who may be experts in the field, not peer-reviewed*; edited for format and style.

Articles are evaluated by peer-reviewers* or referees who are experts in the field; edited for content, format, and style.

References

Rare. Little, if any, information about source materials is given,

Occasional brief bibliographies, but not required

Required. Quotes and facts are verifiable.

Source: "Scholarly vs. Popular Materials" by Amy VanScoy, NCSU Library and "Scholarly, Popular and Trade Journals" by Jason Puckett & Lyn Thaxton at GSU.

*Peer-review: the article (data, method, conclusions, references,etc.) is evaluated by one or more specialist in the field before it is accepted for publication.

How to evaluate publications

Publication Forum (in Finnish often referred to as JUFO) evaluates Finnish and foreign academic publication channels. Publication Forum operates under the auspices of the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies (TSV). The three-level classification rates the major foreign and Finnish publication channels of all disciplines.

Publication Forum ratings

  • disseminate information on the impact and prestige of the scientific publication channels
  • handle humanities and social sciences more equally than citation analyses
  • are meant to evaluate large publication volumes only, not suited for the evaluation of the merits of an individual researcher
  • are updated regularly
  • the review of ratings is done once every four years by 23 field specific panels

Publication Forum classification is used as a quality indicator of the research output produced by universities within the university funding model established by the Ministry of Education and Culture. Among the appropriation criteria, scientific and other publications account for 13 per cent of the basic funding to universities.
Source: Publication Forum

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