The Information Lifecycle:
The Information Lifecycle helps us understand how information about an event, topic or idea might emerge and evolve over time.
Note that this timeline is just a general sense of the information lifecycle -- the exact timing can vary greatly from one discipline to another!
Scholarly vs. Popular Sources:
Scholarly sources are written by experts on a particular subject (for example, a professor or other researcher). They also go through an extra process of review and approval by a group of other experts before they can be published. Usually, scholarly articles are written in 'academic-ese' and designed to be read by other scholars. However, because scholarly sources take a long time to be approved and published, they are not always good sources for current events.
|author||Usually staff writers and/or journalists||Experts on the topic -- usually researchers, scholars and/or professors|
|audience||General public (for "popular" consumption)||Other experts (and students) in the field|
|editing & review||Editor(s); generally concerned with grammar, style, etc., with some fact-checking||Other experts ("peer reviewed"); generally concerned with quality, thoroughness of research, strength of argument, etc.|
|style & design||
Reasonably brief, typically uses colloquial if not informal language. Often illustrated with graphics, sidebars and other aesthetic elements. Sometimes accompanied by ads.
|More extensive in length; tends to be more formal and uses specialized vocabulary. Illustrations and charts are used only when furthering content.|
|goal or purpose||To entertain; and/or, to share general information||To share findings, advance and argument and/or engage with other scholars|
|sources||Few or none; if sources are used, there may not be formal citations.||Typically uses many sources, cited in detailed bibliographies, footnotes and/or endnotes|
|examples||Time Magazine; Sports Illustrated; New Yorker; Boston Globe||Annual Review of Political Science; American Historical Review; Sociology of Education|
It's important to keep in mind that scholarly sources are not always the best or only source available to you -- it depends on what information you are trying to find:
Primary & Secondary Sources:
A primary source is a first-hand witness to a historical event or period (that is, it was originally created at that point in history). Primary sources offer a first-hand perspective which is untouched by hindsight, subsequent events, or modern knowledge. They provide insights about the actions, motivations and emotions involved in a historical period, and allow us to understand history as it was experienced at the time rather than as we analyze it today.
Unlike with secondary sources, the value of primary sources lies in their proximity to the event rather than a particular publication venue and/or authority (though this can also play a role in your interpretation of the source). For this reason, primary sources may include a combination of scholarly, popular, unpublished, and other kinds of sources.
Secondary sources are second-hand witnesses -- they provide descriptions and/or analysis of historical events and documents after the fact. Secondary sources usually draw their information from primary sources, but add a layer of interpretation, and often rely upon the kind of understanding of historical periods and/or events that only becomes clear sometime later.
|author||A first-hand witness to a historical event or period||A second-hand witness who interprets first-hand information using later understanding of events|
|date||Typically, but not always, published in or near the relevant time period or event. Exceptions can include memoirs or compilations, translations, etc. published at a later date.||Typically removed in time from the relevant period/event|
|original purpose||Varies widely. Typically not intentionally created for sake of history or research.||Varies; usually, to convey information or analysis|
Offers first-hand perspectives untouched by hindsight or modern knowledge
|Offers descriptions, and/or analysis of historical events after the fact; may also offer synthesis of first-hand information.|
|publication format||Varies; can include nearly anything from an object to a scholarly article [if from the appropriate period]||Typically "published" sources -- books, journal articles, magazines/newspapers|
|examples||NYT article from April 1912 [Titanic], 1963 book on the USSR [Cold War], George Washington's collected papers [Colonial America/Revolution]||American Historical Review; current NYT articles; a book published in 2018|
Questioning Your Sources:
Who is the author?
How is the author qualified?
Is the author an expert?
What is the author's bias? (Remember that a bias may not be directly stated -- but there is almost always some bias!))
Be wary if you cannot determine an author or group responsible for the content you are reading.
What is the source? Is it a research report? An entertainment piece? An opinion essay?
What is the domain extension? What does this tell you about the source's audience, purpose, and potential bias(es) or shortcoming(s)?
Is the source recent (or, if digital, regularly updated)? When was it published?
Is there any information which seems out-of-date?
Who published this resource?
Does the host/publisher have bias? (Remember that a bias may not be directly stated.)
What is the purpose and audience of the source?
What is the benefit, and/or who benefits, if this source reaches and/or successfully convinces readers?
How (with what information/sources/foundation) was this source created?
Does the resource provide its sources?
Does it refer/link you to other credible sources?
Can you determine whether the information came from, and whether the original source/info is represented accurately?
Lateral Reading is a more nuanced technique of evaluating websites and other kinds of sources.
While the questions on the previous tab are a great place to start, sometimes you can't answer them completely -- or, sometimes, they don't give a complete picture of the information you are looking at.
The video below explains what lateral reading is, why it's important, and how to do it.