This article describes five traditional evaluation criteria—authority, accuracy, objectivity, currency, and coverage/intended audience. These criteria have their origins in the world of print media but are universal criteria that need to be addressed regardless of the medium evaluated.
To provide a more in-depth understanding of the criteria, each is addressed individually. Moreover, since significant overlap often occurs between criteria, these scenarios are also discussed in detail. For example, authority and accuracy often go hand in hand and thus may need to be considered together to achieve a more complete picture of a particular resource.
Authority is the extent to which material is the creation of a person or organization recognized as having definitive knowledge of a given subject area.
Authority of Traditional Sources
There are several methods to assess the authority of a work. One approach is to determine an author’s qualifications for writing on the subject by examining his or her background, experience, and formal credentials related to the subject area.
Another method for assessing the authority of a work is to examine the publisher’s reputation. A publisher earns a reputation for the quality of its materials based on numerous factors, such as the following:
- The accuracy of the contents of its publications
- The types of individuals who use the company’s publications
- Reviews written about the publisher’s works
- The expertise of the authors writing for the publisher
A publisher that wants to produce quality works must establish and adhere to strict editorial and ethical standards that emphasize quality. The publisher employs editors and ombudsmen (i.e., individuals who hear and investigate complaints against the publication) who continually monitor the information presented. If these practices are consistently and effectively employed, the publisher should gain a reputation for producing publications of excellence and integrity.
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For example, the publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica has gained a reputation for producing high-quality works largely by following these practices.
Authority of Web Sources
One of the factors that have contributed to the explosive popularity of the Web is the ease with which almost anyone can become a Web publisher. Countless people can now easily circumvent the traditional publishing process and communicate their messages directly to a worldwide audience.
While this factor is one of the Web’s great strengths, it also presents unique evaluation challenges. On the Web, obtaining sufficient evidence to adequately evaluate a work can prove quite difficult. Also, even if an author’s name is given on a page, it should not be automatically assumed that this person is the actual author. Moreover, it is often difficult to verify who, if anyone, has ultimate responsibility for publishing the material.
Accuracy is the extent to which information is reliable and free from errors.
Accuracy of Traditional Sources
Traditional media utilize a number of checks and balances to help ensure the accuracy of content. These include the following:
- The use of editors and fact-checkers to monitor accuracy.
- The use of the peer review process to monitor the accuracy of scholarly journal articles.
- The use of style manuals to help maintain uniformity in language usage and manuscript format.
- The listing of sources for factual information, as appropriate.
Evaluation of information encompasses a large part of our daily lives, albeit we are often not consciously aware of the process. Even a simple trip to the supermarket requires making a large array of evaluation decisions. We commonly compare products on the basis of such objective and subjective criteria as ingredients, prices, calories per serving, size, color, and even shelf location and package appearance.
Frequently, our past experience with a particular brand name also plays a major role in our purchasing decisions. For example, if we purchased XYZ brand spaghetti sauce in the past and found it to be flavorful and of overall high quality, we will probably be more likely to purchase the same sauce in the future. Moreover, if faced with a choice between another XYZ brand product and an unfamiliar brand name, we will probably be more apt to favor XYZ brand. In effect, XYZ’s spaghetti sauce has earned a good reputation in our view.
We even evaluate information while we watch television. Again, reputation plays a role in the evaluation. However, in this instance, our focus is on the broadcaster’s reputation for authority, accuracy, objectivity, and so forth. As a result, we tend to give more credence to information provided on C-Span rather than information offered by an infomercial. As these examples illustrate, reputation often influences our differentiation between the quality of a wide array of products.
Consequently, reputation and related factors are revisited several time throughout this book. As mentioned earlier, authority and accuracy are often interrelated. We often make the assumption that a publisher with a reputation for reliability will produce works that are also accurate. Consumer Reports, for example, is a publication found in countless libraries and homes because it has a reputation as an authoritative, reliable source of impartial information.
Although readers may not know that the Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, does not accept any type of funding from the makers of products it tests, they do assume, because of the publication’s reputation, that information found in it will be accurate (Consumers Union 1998–2009).
Accuracy of Web Sources
As stated previously, one of the benefits of the Web is that people can easily share their works with the public, independent of traditional publishing or broadcasting venues. Another major advantage of the Web is its timeliness, as Web material can be published almost instantaneously. Nonetheless, several steps used to substantiate the accuracy of traditional media are frequently condensed or even eliminated when works are published on the Web.
This condensation of the traditional publishing process can result in problems as straightforward as the omission of a listing of sources used in research or as complex as what happened in late May 2007 when a television station in Tulsa, Oklahoma, erroneously posted a report of a fire at a Oklahoma refinery on its Web site. Although the station withdrew the story after the refinery categorically denied its authenticity, in the meantime, the posted report triggered a 40-cent increase in U.S. crude prices.
In this example, the source of the information—a CBS affiliate—was authoritative, but the Web publishing process had somehow circumvented the checks and balances usually in place to ensure accuracy (“Web Site Error” 2007).
Objectivity is the extent to which material expresses facts or information without distortion by personal feelings or other biases.
Objectivity of Traditional Sources
No presentation of information can ever be considered totally free of bias because everyone has a motive for conveying a message. However, it is often important to attempt to assess the information provider’s objectivity. Knowing the intent of the organization or person for providing the information can shed light on any biases that might be present in the material. For example, we would easily be able to evaluate the objectivity of information originating from the U.S. surgeon general or a tobacco company.
Nevertheless, it can be extremely difficult to uncover the biases of information sources with which we are unfamiliar, even print sources, unless the provider explicitly states his or her point of view.
Objectivity of Web Sources
If we are familiar with the author or provider of information on the Web, evaluating its objectivity is probably no more difficult than evaluating the objectivity of print information. However, because the Web so easily offers the opportunity for persons or groups of any size to present their point of view, it frequently functions as a virtual soapbox. It can be difficult, in this jumble of virtual soapboxes, to determine the objectivity of many Web resources unless the purpose of the individual or group
presenting the information is clearly stated.
When discussing objectivity, another important factor to consider is the potential influence exerted by advertisers or sponsors on the informational content of works. Although the extent of this influence is difficult to ascertain even in non-Web sources, it has become even more complex on the Web. Because of its complexity, this issue is discussed in greater detail in a future article.
Currency is the extent to which material can be identified as up to date.
Currency of Traditional Sources
To evaluate the currency of a print source, it is important to know when the material was first created. This information can usually be determined from the publication and copyright dates that commonly appear on the title page or other front matter of a work. However, specific kinds of material may also require additional date-related information beyond these dates.
For example, for statistical information, it is important to know not only the publication date but also the date the original statistics were compiled. For example the publication date for the Statistical Abstract of the United States may be 2009, but a closer analysis of the contents may reveal the information in many of the charts was collected several years prior to publication. Therefore, reputable print publications that present statistical information also frequently indicate the date the statistics were collected.
Currency of Web Sources
Because there are no established guidelines for including dates on Web pages, it can be difficult to determine the currency of Web resources. Frequently, dates of publication are not included on Web pages, and if included, a date may be variously interpreted as the date when the material was first created, when it was placed on the Web, or when the Web page was last revised.
One advantage of Web publishing is the ease with which material can be revised. However, unless each revision is clearly dated, it can be difficult to keep track of the various versions. This is obviously important if a print or electronic copy has been made of the page for use in research. In addition, because there is no standard format for how dates appear on Web pages, Web users may construe dates differently.
Confusion can result when people use different conventions to convey the same information.
Coverage and Intended Audience
Coverage is the range of topics included in a work and the depth to which those topics are addressed. Intended audience is the group of people for whom the material was created.
Coverage and Intended Audience of Traditional Sources
Print sources frequently include a preface or introduction at the beginning of the publication explaining the topics the work includes, the depth or level to which these topics are addressed, and the intended audience for the material. If this explanatory material is not included, a table of contents or an index may provide similar information.
Even if lacking all of these features, a print source can usually be scanned or browsed to determine the coverage of information and the audience for whom it is written.
Coverage and Intended Audience of Web Sources
Because Internet-based resources often lack the Web equivalent of a preface or introduction, the coverage of the material is often not readily apparent. Moreover, “thumbing” through Web pages can prove to be a tedious process; an index of the site’s contents or a site map may be the only practical ways to determine the range of topics and the depth to which they are covered on a particular site.
Likewise, unlike motion pictures and television programs, the majority of Web sources lack rating systems that indicate their intended audience. Thus, the intended audience for the source may only be learned by scanning through its content.
The five basic evaluation criteria outlined in this chapter provide a starting point for crafting an evaluation scheme that addresses the “something old, something new” nature of the World Wide Web and its vast array of resources.
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