Sunday, February 19, 2006

Reliablility and authority

We've discussed the nature of authority and its relationship to information sources last year. It's been a rough year or so for traditionally "trusted" sources of information, as well as the processes for insuring authoritative, reliable information (e.g, peer review). First, the much heralded Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a traditional reference work, was discovered to be riddled with errors. Then a study showed that a sample of Wikipedia science articles had only a slightly higher average error rate than those same articles in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Now, The Scientist is running an article providing damning evidence that peer review may be (or always has been) broken.

News like this is important for both librarians and non-librarians to know. Librarians have traditionally taught that reference books like the EB and the DNB and scholarly journals are sources of reliable, authoritative information. Reference books, the conventional wisdom goes, are carefully edited and contain entries written by experts. Articles in scholarly journals go through a rigorous, blind review process to ensure the research is original, plausible, and useful. However, the above articles blow down the doors of these quaint, somewhat naive beliefs.

It is never enough to say, "This information is reliable, authoritative, and correct." I really liked Marc Meola's article, "Chucking the Checklist" (alternative link). While he is focusing on evaluation of Web sites, his method of evaluation works in other information contexts. It is essentially threefold method: promoting peer- and editorially-reviewed resources, comparison, and corroboration. While I have just criticized peer- and editorially-reviewed sources, they can be used in conjunction with comparing the information to other sources and finding evidence to back them up.

This week we had a friendly debate in the library about President's Day that nicely illustrates this method of evaluation. One librarian adamantly contended that President's Day was actually the celebration of Washington's birthday. I insisted it was both Lincoln AND Washington's birthdays. (After all, wasn't that what I was taught in elementary school? Had I been living a lie for a large part of my life?) We hit the reference collection. I found three reference books that supported my position. She found one the supported hers. We went online and located the relevant statutes for the State of Minnesota and the federal government. Minnesota's President's Day is a celebration of both; the federal holiday is a celebration of Washington's.


Alec said...

I forgot to mention this really good edition of Talk of the Nation where the topic was peer review.

Barbara said...

Great round-up of issues, Alec. This is why I think information literacy is an important skill (even though I've never loved that name for it). It's impossible to draw a strict line between "truth" and "not truth" when using sources, but Marc Meola suggests some practical ways to verify evidence. He has a copy on his Web site, by the way - portal is good about copyright issues.

Alec said...

Funding also has the potential to affect the "quality" of information. An article in Environmental Science and Technology reports on concerns that cuts in government research dollars will force researchers to rely on corporate funding, which could compromise objectivity in basic research. (Via MetaFilter.)