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More information evaluation…

I’ve been rattling this post around in my head for a few days, and it hasn’t gone away, so here we go:

I really hate the newest Google Librarian Newsletter.

This pains me to say it, especially since it’s written by one of my favorite bibliobloggers, Karen Schneider. And I don’t hate all of it…but I do think that it’s a continuation of a potentially misleading aspect of information evaluation that librarians have been forwarding for years.

To the quotes!

Karen sets up the discussion with a reasonably simple question:

Okay, so your favorite search engine has turned up thousands of web sites on the topic of your choosing. Which ones should you trust?

Then says:

Whether we’re selecting new web sites for our newsletter or deciding whether to toss or keep sites already in our collection, we rely primarily on what we call the “big five show-stoppers”: availability, credibility, authorship, external links and legality.

This is, I think, a conflation of two very different factors: the question is asking “what do you trust?” which I interpret to mean something roughly like “what is true/correct/factual?” The second is more a collection development policy. And the two don’t always go together.

Under “credibility”, Karen says:

We’re always surprised when potentially good web sites don’t provide information about the author’s credentials right up front. If we aren’t sure about a site, we write the author. If they don’t respond, or we’re not convinced of their credibility when they answer, we reject the site.

Shortcut: Look for an “About” page or an author biography.

Shortcut: There are some sources that you can nearly always trust. Many librarians busy helping patrons at the desk, over the phone, or in instant messaging sessions use Google searches limited to the .edu or .gov domains to quickly winnow the search to sites known to be authoritative. For example, a Google search for “breast cancer site:gov” will yield high-quality web sites.

As I think I may have mentioned, Authority is my pet peeve when it comes to information evaluation. We’ve seen the sorts of trouble we get into when we put to much stock in authority. Why do we keep using it? I believe that it’s a holdover from a pre-network, pre-Internet, pre-digital world, where cross-checking many things was simply too difficult to manage. We upheld authority in those cases due to a simple inability to compare pieces of information easily and determine what is supported by research and what is not. That’s not the case anymore, however…nearly anything is easily fact-checked, or at the very least examined to determine if it coheres with other facts.

The .edu and .gov trick is another thing that annoys me every time I read it. Edu sites are a dime a dozen, and any random student (or professor!) can say nearly any piece of nonsense they desire, and have it hosted by their university (or high school, these days). And I don’t think we want to get started on whether or not a large portion of the government sites may or may not be trustworthy. I certainly wouldn’t trust this administration to present balanced information on nearly any scientific topic, for instance. This is another bit of librarian-backed laziness forwarded upon our students (and now, via Google, on the world!).

Reliance on Authority as an evaluation of truth of information is simply wrong. The truth of any piece of information should be a seperate question, verified by cross checking it with multiple sources and building a coherent web of facts. That’s the purpose and goal of research, as I understand it. Authority short circuits this goal, causes lazy research, and undermines the critical thinking necessary to do real research.

The author of a legitimate web site will ensure that she is legally entitled to publish the content on her site, working within copyright and fair use guidelines.

Shortcut: Avoid fan sites, lyric sites, paper mills, and any site posting newspaper or magazine articles (the full articles, not quotes or links) without also posting explicit permission statements.

I can definitely see this as a collection development policy…I mean, why include copies of something when you can just include the actual article? But as a measure of…what was it again…oh yeah, “trust”, I’m not sure it follows. Do I care if a lyric site is copying some other lyric site when all I want to know is what the hell Maynard is whispering at the end of the Perfect Circle song “Passive“? No, not really. The legality of the information is again seperate from its truth or falsehood. If I’m doing research on something, the only thing that I’m really concerned about is the validity of the information itself, devoid of source.

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