- Gain awareness of the types of sources that make up our information environment
- Use different characteristics of a source to determine how it might be useful to your research
Sources can be categorized in many different ways. A common, but not very useful way is to categorize them by format, like print vs. online, or books vs. articles. But we can gain a better understanding of a source if we understand how to categorize it according to what kind of creator made it or what processes were involved in its creation.
There are a lot of different ways to categorize sources. In the chapter Identifying a Topic, we mentioned two of them: a source can be categorized according to who the intended audience is (expert or popular,) or a source can be categorized according to its scope (a small piece of a topic or a synthesis of a whole field.) But there are many, many ways to categorize sources, and when it comes to figuring out whether or not or how to use a source, some categories are more useful than others. Here are some we will consider in this chapter:
- Format: What does the source look like? (ex: books, periodicals, videos, etc.)
- Creator: Who created the source? (ex: governments, journalists, researchers, etc.)
- Gatekeeping: What controls were used in the creation of the source? (peer-review, editorial control, etc.)
Knowing what sources exist is a key step on the way to gaining perspectives of others. From the Habits of Mind chapters you might remember that every message is created and received within a cultural and historical context. Understanding how messages are created and by whom will help us understand their context.
One of the most common ways we talk about different kinds of sources is their format. Print vs online is one way to categorize sources by format, but other common format categories include:
- Books: includes categories like encyclopedias, anthologies
- Periodicals: includes categories like newspapers, magazines, & scholarly journals
As you can see, even when we categorize sources by their format, there’s no one right way to do it. (Also, any book or periodical can be available in either print or online, so the print and online categories aren’t very useful.) Because many different kinds of creators can create a source in any format, format isn’t a particularly useful characteristic in evaluating a source. Knowing the format also doesn’t tell you anything about the gatekeeping that was used in its creation.
Format is useful when you’re deciding where to search. As we’ll discuss in the next chapter, Access & Searching, you would likely use a different search platform to find a book than you would to find an article from a periodical.
Another way that the idea of format can be useful is by knowing what kinds of information tends to show up in what kinds of formats. Information about very recent events will show up first in daily or weekly periodicals like newspapers and magazines, or on frequently updated websites.
Information about recent research discoveries will show up first in monthly, quarterly, or annual periodicals, like scholarly journals. Some scholarly articles also analyze current events, but because scholarly publishing is slower than newspaper publishing, you won’t find a scholarly article about something that happened last week.
Some time after an event or discovery has been reported in one of these places, it may start to show up in books. Books are more likely to synthesize many events or research findings into a bigger narrative, which takes longer to write and publish than articles in periodicals. But the bigger picture that can be found in books is very valuable, one reason why we suggest consulting encyclopedias during preliminary research.
Yes, on some level, all sources are created by an individual sitting down and doing work. But many times those individuals are doing that work in the course of their jobs and under the direction of a larger entity or according to the norms and expectations of a certain community.
Don’t confuse governments with politicians. Hundreds of thousands of people work in various United States federal agencies, from the Department of Agriculture to NASA. Thousands more work on the state and local levels of government. Unlike elected officials, most of these workers apply for their jobs in much the same way employees in the private sector do. Not everyone working in government is focused on getting re-elected.
The amount of information produced by governments is enormous, and much of it is high quality information that is not or could not be gathered by any other entity. Once place to search for United States government data is at Data.gov
A company might be selling a product, a service, or both. Just because there is a profit motive involved doesn’t mean you have to immediately discount any information produced by a for-profit company. But it is important to understand the relationship between the information they produce and the way they make their money. For example, it is reasonable to be skeptical of claims about vitamins and supplements made by the companies that profit from selling them.
This covers a lot of ground, but just as we shouldn’t immediately discount any source from a for-profit company, we shouldn’t automatically accept information produced by a non-profit. In many cases, what a non-profit is “selling” is a certain idea or ideology. The stated mission of the organization can tell you a little bit about an organization, but it is also important to look for what others are saying about the organization. There are many different kinds of non-profits, but there are two kinds in particular that are likely to come up as you research your wicked problem: professional associations and interest groups.
A profession is a job that requires a particular kind of training in a field that has its own standards and rules. People in nearly every profession come together to form professional associations, including plumbers (Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association), meteorologists (American Meteorological Society), and social workers (National Association of Social Workers.) Sometimes a profession is so large that it has more than one professional organization (dentists have at least 10.)
Some professional associations may administer tests to make sure people are qualified to practice a profession. For example, lawyers must pass a test set by their professional organization, the American Bar Association, in order to practice law. These associations don’t just exist to test people trying to enter their professions; they also exist to help people working in them continue to learn, to network and share information with each other, and to advocate for the best policies in their areas of expertise. They can be really good sources of information related to their particular disciplines.
Special Interest Groups
Special Interest Groups, also known as advocacy groups, use various strategies to influence public opinion and ultimately policy. They may exist to advance particular political, religious, moral, or commercial positions. For example, both the National Rifle Association and the Brady Campaign both exist in order to promote certain perspectives on firearms.
Groups use varied methods to try to achieve their aims, including lobbying, media campaigns, publicity stunts, research, and policy briefings. Some groups are supported or backed by powerful business or political interests and exert considerable influence on the political process, while others have few or no such resources.
Information produced by special interest groups is a mixed bag. Unlike professional associations, there’s no guarantee that the information they produce is coming from experts, and we certainly shouldn’t expect them to produce a balanced overview of a topic. At best they can present a good articulation of the opinions related to one perspective on an issue. At worst they can spread false or misleading information in order to advance their policy goals. Special interest groups are not the best sources for facts or data.
One thing to be aware of is a practice known as astroturfing. Sometimes for-profit companies try to make it appear as though their messages are coming from community-organized, grassroots special interest groups by creating and funding non-profit organizations. Just as with for-profit companies, it’s important to find out the relationship between a special interest group’s funding and its goals.
Journalism refers to the gathering and publishing of information about current events or issues relevant to a society. A journalist may work for a for-profit or non-profit organization, but what defines journalism is adherence to a particular set of norms and expectations. The Society of Professional Journalists (another professional association) maintains a Code of Ethics for journalists to follow, but many news organizations also develop their own professional and ethical guidelines. In the chapter Evaluating News Sources, we go into more detail on these practices.
Academics & Researchers
This is another group that is bound by a particular set of expectations and standards. Academic research culture is very much about intellectual honesty, careful research methods, and peer-review in the pursuit of new knowledge. This is also a community that takes plagiarism very seriously (this is one reason your professors will hold you to a high standard with respect to citing the works you have used in your research.) As we saw in the field of journalism, academic publishing has ethical standards, such as the Committee on Publication Ethics’ Core Practices. Individual researchers are also guided by a number of research standards, such as the American Institutes for Research’s Code of Conduct.
Sometimes people do act on their own to create and share information, even when it isn’t their job to do so. We share information about our hobbies, our areas of interest, special skills or knowledge we have developed, and our personal experiences. One of the most powerful changes the internet brought was the ability for people to publish their personal experiences and narratives without having to be part of a formal organization. There are some kinds of information that is most likely to be created by individuals working on their own. For example, if you want to hear about the experiences of a certain group told from their own perspective, individual narratives are ideal.
This is a broad category that contains both sources created by well-meaning individuals and concerned experts as well as angry, uninformed individuals with axes to grind. It is wise to learn a bit about an individual creator before you decide how to use the information they have provided.
Like a guard who stands at a gate and only lets some people through, some sources are created using processes that only allow some information through. Different kinds of organizations will use different mechanisms to filter and improve the information they produce. There are almost as many creation processes as there are outlets and publications, but there are some gatekeeping processes that come up over and over again.
Editors work for book and periodical publishers and even sometimes for websites and blogs. An editor may make decisions about which pieces to publish or commission articles or books on certain topics. An editor may also offer feedback on the content and make sure that the content also goes through different types of review (like fact checking or peer review, both described below.)
Editors often have the final responsibility to make sure the codes of ethics or conduct mentioned above are followed by everyone working at a publication. Even Wikipedia has editors, people with solid knowledge of the rules and norms of the community, who are given particular power to determine who can edit and settle disputes.
Sometimes people aren’t invited to contribute content to a source unless they have a particular kind of credential: a certain degree or certification or hold a certain position. In most cases this determination is made by the editor. For example, scholarly journals are unlikely to publish works by authors who do not have an advanced degree (completed or in progress) in the subject on which they are writing (even when this isn’t an official policy of the journal it is usually true in practice.)
Peer review refers to the practice of having a work evaluated by others in that field. Usually this involves a collaborative process where the individual authors and the reviewers come to an agreement about what changes should be made to improve the work. In some cases, a reviewer may decide that a work is so flawed that they recommend it not be published.
Peer review of scholarly articles can take a long time and is one reason that scholarly articles takes so much longer than newspaper or magazine articles to get published. But peer review is a process that very much embodies the idea of scholarship as a conversation.
Fact checkers verify that the names, dates, and facts in a work (usually an article or book) are correct. For example, they may contact a person who is quoted in a proposed news article and ask the person whether this quotation is correct, or how to spell the person’s name. Fact-checkers are primarily useful in catching accidental mistakes.
The number of people employed in fact-checking varies by publication. Some organizations have substantial fact-checking departments. Others may hire freelancers per piece, or may combine fact-checking with other duties. Magazines are more likely to use fact checkers than newspapers. Television and radio programs rarely employ dedicated fact checkers, and instead expect others, including senior staff, to engage in fact-checking in addition to their other duties.
The top level domain of a website refers to the last two or three letters in the url, for example .com (short for commercial) or .mil (short for military.) Some top level domains are closed to general use, for example, in order for a website to have a .edu domain, a college or university must be accredited by the US Department of Education. Similarly, .gov domains are only open to agencies of the federal, state, or local governments within the United States.
There is a common misconception that the .org domain is restricted to only non-profit organizations. The .org domain has always been the home for many non-profit websites, but this is not a requirement for the .org domain. Currently the .org domain is owned and managed by investment company, Ethos Capital, which puts no restrictions on who may register. Many well respected non-profit organizations do use the .org domain. However, astroturf organizations and hate groups capitalize on this misconception and often use .org domains to increase their appearance of respectability.
Using Creator & Gatekeeping to Describe a Source
Understanding the format, creator, and gatekeeping characteristics of a source will go a long way towards demystifying the information environment and helping you understand the context of the sources you encounter. Keep in mind that format, creator and gatekeeping are all independent of each other. Here are some examples of what that means:
- An academic or researcher may publish information in multiple formats, for example, a blog post and a scholarly article. Peer-reviewed articles can be excellent sources; they can also be challenging to read if you’re not an expert in that area. In fact, many scholars do write blog posts about their scholarly work to try to make it accessible and understandable to a larger audience. The creation process for the blog may have no oversight, but that person is still an expert, and the blog post may be valuable to you in that it helps you understand the content in a way that would have been difficult with the scholarly paper. The creator is the same but the format and the gatekeeping are different.
- A book can come from an academic press with a lot of editorial control, fact-checking, and peer review or it can be self-published by a “vanity press,” that publishes books on demand. Or it can come any number of non-academic book publishers with any number of other unique criteria. The format is the same in each case, but the gatekeeping is very different.
- Anyone can start a blog for free (and it’s not even hard to make it look professional), so some blogs are no more or less valuable than the expertise or perspective of the individual writing them. But some blogs are run by editors who carefully select authors to be invited to contribute blog posts, and those posts may also be subject to some sort of review before they are posted. This is common for blogs associated with professional organizations. In those cases you can have the added confidence that the author of the blog post is someone that the editor believes to have useful expertise on the topic. The format (blog post) is the same in both cases, but the creation processes are different.
A Note About Social Media
Social media is not a type of source; it is a way that a source can be shared and distributed. A post on social media can come in a variety of formats, can originate from any kind of creator, and may or may not involve gatekeeping. Someone could just as easily post a link to a peer-reviewed journal article or to a video produced by a special interest group.
Professional organizations tend to be well respected sources of information because of the level of expertise of their members. Sometimes interest groups try to look like professional associations to appear more credible. For example, one of the groups below is a professional association and one of them is by an interest group.
- Can you tell which is which?
- What information was most useful in determining the answer? What strategies did you use to figure it out?
If you thought this question was hard, you’re not alone. This example was used in a recent study, and both undergrads and professors struggled with the answer, but professional fact checkers did not. In another chapter, SIFTing Information, we discuss some of the strategies used by fact checkers that make this kind of question easy.
Above, we mentioned the practice of astroturfing, where for-profit companies produce information that on the surface appears to be coming from grassroots, community movements. Use Google (or your preferred search engine) to see what can you find out about the funding of the organizations below. For each organization say whether or not you think it is an example of astroturfing and why.
(Sometimes searching the organization name and the word funding turns up interesting results.)
- Center for Consumer Freedom
- National Consumers League
- One Fair Wage
- Save Our Tips
There is an easy way to limit your Google search results to only certain domains. By adding site: to the Google search box along with your search terms, whatever you type after the colon will appear in the url of all the results. For example, site:.edu only returns only higher education webpages. You can even include more of the url to limit your search even further. site:concordmonitor.com will return only pages from the Concord Monitor newspaper website.
- Use the site limiter in Google to find a government webpage on your topic.
- Identify the web address of your hometown’s local newspaper or television news station. Use this information and the site limiter in Google to find out if they have ever done a story on your topic.
Select one of the forms of gatekeeping described above.
- Describe how this process can improve the quality of a source.
- Describe a situation where that process excludes certain perspectives.
- Content in this section is adapted from the Wikipedia entry “Advocacy Group" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advocacy_group) and is used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. ↵
- Content in this section is adapted from the Wikipedia entry “Fact-checking” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fact-checking) and is used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. ↵