3.1a Reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, and timeliness.

Before you decide to use information, you should apply criteria to determine if the information is appropriate. This applies whether or not the information is from the Web, a periodical, a book, or some other source.

Is the information reliable or valid? There are some underlying assumptions about the source of information. Usually, information obtained from a government source will be reliable. For example, health related information from the National Institutes of Health may be considered reliable. Statistics concerning criminal justice that originate from the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics may be considered reliable. Keep in mind that Government generates thousands of reports from its many agencies. Conclusions drawn in these reports, such as "Al Qaeda poses no threat," may not be valid.

Is the information accurate? Statistical information that originates from a Government source has an underlying presumption of accuracy. If you find statistics cited in a web site from an organization (such as AmeriCares) or a commercial entity (such as Merck Pharmaceutical), and the website does not attribute the source of the statistics (for example, the Food & Drug Administration) do NOT assume the statistics are up-to-date or necessarily accurate. Even if the website cites the information, it should be double-checked for accuracy. There is a big difference between 240,000 and 2,400,000 if we are discussing the number of African Americans incarcerated in the United States.

Is the information authoritative? When we look for substantiation for our arguments, we should seek out an authoritative voice. What are the different forms of authority? For one, the credentials that a person holds that indicate expertness. A PhD in Clinical Psychology is an example of one. The institution a person is affiliated with may be another. How many articles or books has the person written that pertain to the subject you are investigating? Does the author have "life experience" that adds credibility to their viewpoint. For example, a former U.S. Secretary of State would obviously be considered "authoritative" if he or she were writing about United States foreign policy.

Many of the books in an academic library are published by an academic press, such as New York Uniersity Press, Rutgers University Press, and others. What does this mean to you? Just as certain websites (for example, the New York Times) have an underlying presumption of authority, books published by an academic press also have this presumption. The audience for these books is the students and faculty scholars of colleges and universities. Usually, they are not intended for a general audience. This is different from your typical public library, where most of the books and media are intended for a broad, general audience.

Is the information timely? The information we seek may not always have to be the most up-to-date we can find. If we are researching the plays of Shakespeare, information generated over a time line may be fine to use. Keep in mind though, that information often reflects the time in which the author has written. If we are researching the role of women in the writing of Shakespeare, more will have been written post-1960s than before. Unfortunately, because of the times in which the authors were living, the role of women in literature was "off the radar" so to speak, and scholars did not pay particular attention to this area of study.

If we are researching appropriate therapies for HIV-AIDS though, it is important to search for and find information that is as up-to-date as possible. Typically, this type of information is found in scholarly journals.

When your Professor requires "scholarly" sources, what does he or she mean? Click on the attached document below for a hand guide you can print out for reference. The document is named What are scholarly resources? Scholarly or not? Indeed, that is the question. Print out the handy reference sheet attached below (Scholarly or not to guide you in your evaluation). When you think you have mastered the content, feel free to take this simple test, click here!

Mark Jackson,
Jul 15, 2009, 12:24 PM