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Math 301: Online Library Orientation: Read and Evaluate Information

Course guide for Math 301.

How To Think About Evaluation

When thinking about how to evaluate information (any information), it's helpful to ask ourselves a series of questions:

  • Who created this work? Who did the research? Why should we trust them? 
  • Who (in this case, which journal/newspaper/magazine/publishing house) published the work? What are their publishing procedures? Do we have a sense (or can we get a sense by searching around online) of the reputation of the publication?
  • Who is the audience? Is a certain amount of scientific expertise assumed? 
  • How recently was this article published? For the topic, is it considered "current"?
    • "Current" may have different implications for different disciplines: for example, medical literature that's more than a few years old may already be woefully out of date, whereas mathematical theorems are generally considered "current" until/unless disproved. Many foundational mathematical theorems are hundreds or even thousands of years old.
  • Consider also: what was happening in the world when the work was published? This could be in general or specific to your field.
    • General: during World War II, many scientific communities on all sides of the conflict were disrupted or had their work redirected towards the war effort. If you're looking at an article published during or soon after this time you'll want to keep that in mind.
    • Specific: the confirmation of the Higgs boson in 2012 at CERN was revolutionary for the field of physics, and has had implications for related fields as well. If you're looking at an article in particle physics especially, knowing whether it was published before or after this discovery will influence your assessment of its contents.
  • Travel around in time using citations:
    • Look back in time: check the bibliography to see older related works that the authors considered important enough to cite.
    • Look forward in time: check the databases Web of Science or Google Scholar to discover if newer works have cited the article you're looking at.
  • Why do we think this work was published in the first place? Was it to announce a discovery? Offer a new perspective or analysis of existing knowledge? Why a work was published may change depending on the audience for the work.
  • Are the authors primarily sharing facts, or opinions? Facts come from observations and research about the world and can (at least in theory) be verified by outside sources. Opinions are judgments, beliefs, or assessments (often about facts) put forth by the authors. Facts can be proven wrong, whereas opinions really can't.
  • What biases might the authors bring to their work? Do they seem to be promoting a specific point of view? Are they engaging with views other than their own?
    • Important note: there's no such thing as an unbiased source. Every author brings their background, worldview, training, and opinions to the work they do, and so it's not possible for any work to be truly "unbiased."
    • Instead of trying to find an "unbiased" source, a better plan is to look for sources where the authors acknowledge and engage honestly with viewpoints other than their own.
  • An important element of scientific publishing is funding and conflicts of interest. Reputable publications will often (but not always) provide information about these. Knowing where money came from to fund research can give us important information about the publication.
    • There are some fields where a significant percentage of research funding comes from corporations with a financial stake in the outcomes of the research. Studies have shown that when corporations fund research, they have an ousize influence on the research agendas and the outcomes of the studies.

Other Great Assessment Tools

How to Read Scholarly Materials

"The hourglass information structure" (general to specific, then back to general) from "How to Read a Book" by Paul N. Edwards

Image from "How to Read a Book" by Paul N. Edwards.