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Information Skills: Evaluating and Critiquing Information

Welcome to the Evaluating & Critiquing Information guide

It is important to be able to assess the quality, accuracy, relevance, bias, reputation and credibility of the information resources found,
as well as read critically and identify key points and arguments.

This guide presents considerations for ensuring the information you gather best supports your purpose and objectives.

Evaluating the effectiveness of your search and the information you find is a very important part of the information-seeking process.  In order to effectively evaluate the information you've gathered, it's a good idea to think about the following:

  • Have you found enough information?
  • Is what you've found good enough for your needs?
  • Are your resources relevant to your topic?

If not, have a look at the Searching for Information tab.

Who is the author?

The author could be an individual, a corporate author, or an organisation.

What to look for:

Authors -

  • who do they work for?
  • what else have they published?
  • what are their qualifications and experience?
  • do they have a financial interest - for example, are they being sponsored by someone?
  • has your lecturer mentioned this author?

Organisations -

  • what are their interests?
  • who funds them?
  • who are they affiliated with?

Where to find the information -

  • most scholarly publications will list the author's qualifications and affiliated institution or organisation
  • books usually contain a biography of the author
  • reliable Web pages clearly indicate who compiled or produced the information, usually in a link to 'About us', or 'About this site'

Is the information accurate?

  • good-quality resources will contain references to support the author's arguments
  • there may be online links to supporting evidence
  • there may be data from the author's own original research
  • if these references are not available, the accuracy of the information may be questionable
  • check that the information referred to comes from the cited source and that it is accurate
  • inconsistent spelling and grammatical errors imply that the information has not been thoroughly checked for inaccuracies

How reliable is the information?

Is the periodical scholarly or peer-reviewed?

  • articles can be published in a variety of periodicals, such as refereed journals, scholarly journals, trade publications, magazines or newspapers
  • refereed and scholarly periodicals have the most academic credibility

Who is the publisher?

  • if you don't know who the publisher is, it's hard to tell if the resource is good academic quality
  • there are many reputable publishers, such as University Presses or other academic publishers
  • although publication by a reputable publisher does not guarantee quality, it does mean that the publisher has high regard for the work

You can be sure that any sources of information bought by the library are of good academic quality.

What is the purpose of the information?

Understanding the reasons why information has been produced can help you decide whether or not it's a reliable resource:

  • has the information been produced to try and persuade people, perhaps to buy a particular product?
  • has the information been produced by an organisation promoting a particular point of view?

Has information been excluded?

  • it's important that you present a balanced view of the topic by using information from a variety of sources
  • it's equally important that you use sources that present an unbiased view themselves - some authors may have their own agenda and fail to present all the facts
  • show in your references that you have done detailed research - this helps prove that you have looked at all aspects of a topic
  • demonstrate that you are aware of alternative views and explain why you disagree
  • be careful not to allow your own opinions to influence your choice of material - if you exclude information that doesn't fit in with your own viewpoint, you will not be presenting a balanced piece of work

What kind of language is used?

  • good academic sources use objective and specific language
  • emotionally charged language or language that is vague and general may be a clue that the information is biased or unreliable

When was the information created or published?

  • most good quality information sources indicate a date of publication
  • if timeliness is important for your topic, a source that provides no information on when it was created or published may not be appropriate to use

Tips:

  • websites don't always include a date of publication
  • when there is one, it can be difficult to work out whether the date refers to when the information was first written, placed on the Internet, or last updated
  • consider the type of resource you are evaluating and how long is has taken to publish it
  • it can take several years to publish a book, so information will already be several years old by the time it appears
  • remember to check the date of the original publication - some are recent reprints of older titles.

Is the information regularly updated?

Information sources may be updated continuously, daily or at regular intervals, such as monthly or annually.

For example:

  • exchange rates published by the HM Revenue and Customs
  • news articles published in The Guardian

Check the dates of the references and data used to determine the currency of the information. Dead links on a Web page are a sign of irregular maintenance.

Is timeliness important to you?

If you need information on the latest research, then you will need to find journal articles that have been published within the last few years. However, for some topics historical materials will be acceptable. You need to work out what would be appropriate for each assignment.

Remember that much research which was carried out many years ago may form the basis of research being carried out today. Original historical sources, and works by pioneers in the field, may be essential for setting the scene for more recent research and publications.

What process was used to gather and analyse the information?

Authors may have carried out their own research or refer to work carried out by others. References and bibliographies are a good indication that the work is based on scholarly research.

Supporting evidence could be:

  • references to documents that support the author's arguments
  • links to supporting material online
  • original data such as statistics

Check the evidence to make sure that it's:

  • of an appropriate quality
  • relevant to the points the author is making
  • not out of date
  • referenced correctly and consistently

Wherever possible, you should trace the original material referred to in the reference lists rather than making secondary references.

It is likely that you won't find everything you need the first time you search, therefore, it is a good idea to consider the following when reviewing your results:

  • Do you have too many or too few results?
    • is the number of results manageable?
    • are there too many to review?
    • are there not enough results to pull an adequate amount of information from?
       
  • Is the quality of your results good enough?
    • do they provide enough details for your needs?
    • are the articles short and lacking references?
    • can you understand what you've found or are there too many specialised terms included?
       
  • Is the information appropriate and written at the right level?
    • who is the audience?
    • is the material "academic"?
    • how was the information produced?
       
  • Is the information too old?

Critical appraisal is the process of carefully and systematically examining research to judge its trustworthiness, and its value and relevance in a particular context.

Evidence-based practice requires the critical appraisal of evidence so that it can be used to inform and to promote clinically effective care and decision-making.

Some questions to consider when carrying out a critical appraisal include:

  • Why was the research carried out?
  • Are the authors recognised in this field of expertise?
  • Is the research free from bias?
  • What is the sample size?
  • Are the variables clearly defined and robust?
  • How was the data analysed?
  • Did anything unusual happen?
  • Do the results fit in with findings from previous research?
  • What are the implications for the future?

More detailed information about critical appraisals is available in the Nursing and Midwifery Subject Guide 

A systematic review is much more rigorous than a literature review.

An exhaustive search of all the literature is carried out, according to set criteria, and the resulting papers selected and analysed according to a closely defined process.

A systematic review should have:

  • Clear inclusion/ exclusion criteria
  • An explicit search strategy
  • Systematic coding and analysis of included studies
  • Meta-analysis (where possible)

More detailed information about Systematic Reviews is available here.

The literature review is meant to demonstrate that you have read widely around your topic and are capable of

summarising
analysing
critically evaluating

The literature review will also demonstrate your ability to engage with the arguments, ideas and debates related to your field of study.

You can find more detailed information about literature reviews in our Assignment Planning Toolkit.