Suppose you have been carrying out a thorough and systematic search for information on your topic of interest. You have found quite a lot of material – more than you can include in your work. How will you decide what to include and what to discard? Even if you don't have more than you need, is all that you have ‘good enough’?
Activity Thinking about good and bad information
Think about what might be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ information. Below are some words which have been used to describe information. Try and see if you can divide them into two groups, one for ‘good’ information and one for ‘bad’ information.
|| up to date
|| badly written
||out of date
Are there any words that are difficult to classify this way? Why do you think this is? Are there any other words you can add to either group?
It is probably obvious from your lists that the concept of information quality is anything but straightforward. To suggest that information is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is to simplify some very complex issues and arguments.
For example, how did you classify ‘complicated’? Depending on what you need the information for this may be good or bad – the context of use is the most important deciding factor.
Similarly, something that is ‘subjective’ or ‘dated’ may be useless to a scientist but very good for an historian. We will look further at this point in Section 5, Topic 4.
What this activity demonstrates is that there are certain aspects of information which we need to consider when deciding whether a specific piece of information is ‘good enough’ for our particular purpose; there is a need for ‘critical appraisal’ of potential resources. To help do this we suggest you use the following mnemonic, PROMPT for short:
Presentation – is the information presented in a clear and readable way?
Relevance – is the information appropriate and relevant to the purpose in hand?
Objectivity – is the content balanced or is there some bias?
Method – how was the information gathered together?
Provenance – who or what originated the information and are they reliable sources?
Timeliness – is the information up to date and does this matter in our context?
We will look at each of these topics in turn.
The way in which information is presented can have a profound effect on the way we receive and perceive it. The old saying ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ has some good lessons for us when we are trying to judge the value of a new source of information.
It may not simply be that something that looks good, isn't. It may equally be that something which looks insignificant is actually the most important piece of information available. You need to develop the skill of looking beyond the obvious and what seems to be. This is true of all kinds of information. One of the most famous hoax TV documentaries was broadcast by the BBC in 1957. Viewers assumed that because it was broadcast by a reputable company like the BBC it must be true but they had failed to notice that it was being broadcast on the 1st April and was an April Fool joke. You can find the whole story here. Watch the film and see if you can find any clues to suggest it is a fake.
Relevance is an important aspect of information quality. However, it is not a property of the information itself. Rather its importance is in its relationship to the need you have identified and for which you are searching for information. The information in front of you may be of high quality but not actually relevant to the question you are asking nor to the scope of your search. There are a number of ways in which it may or may not be relevant to your needs. Some important ones are, for example:
- Level – it may be too detailed/specialised or too general/simple for the level at which you are working,
- Emphasis – it may not contain the kind of information you are seeking – this is often a question of emphasis, and one which, in the case of a journal article for example, may not easily be identifiable from an abstract,
- Geographic – it may relate to countries or areas you are not interested in at this time.
You can probably think of others that relate to your own subject field.