Respect Authority: Discussing Evaluation Methods and Tools

by Kelsey Diemand

In the world of librarianship and information literacy, there is always much to be said about evaluating sources. Librarians, especially in academia, are often consulted to determine if a source is credible or not. The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education addresses this conversation of evaluating authority in its first frame, “Authority is Constructed and Contextual.” The frame reads, “Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used” (ACRL, 2016, p.4). This frame stresses the importance of the critical evaluation of resources, with information literate learners taking into account the context of the information. The Framework goes on to say that “Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required” (ACRL, 2016, p. 4).

newspapers lying on patio floo with houseplantsPhoto by Branden Harvey on Unsplash

So, how do we define authority? In a 2017 article, two librarians in New York began a study at their home institution of Long Island University to explore notions of authority within library instruction sessions (Angell & Tewell). In the context of their study, authority is what makes someone (in this case, an author) able to speak to a certain subject or topic, i.e. subject expertise, a special experience, or societal position. The study aimed to explore and better understand “student conceptions of source evaluation and associated ideas of trustworthiness, credibility, and authority” through different activities and methods used in undergraduate library instruction sessions (Angell & Tewell, 2017, p.96).

Angell and Tewell’s methodology spanned across a two-class session for each group of students and had students fill out a worksheet in each session. The first worksheet had students state:

  1. where they found the source
  2. the author and title of the source
  3. who wrote/contributed to the source and how could they tell
  4. how this source may be useful to the student
  5. if they would include the source in their works cited page

The second worksheet, designed for the follow-up session, included the following questions for an article chosen by the students:

  1. Do you think this is a trustworthy source? Why or why not?
  2. Who can publish on this specific topic? Whose voice might be included or excluded?

Both of these worksheet activities encouraged students to consider what made a source credible or not, how the source could be used in a students’ project, and how does authority affect what information is there. In response to the questionnaire results, the authors pointed out that there are some implications for teaching information literacy. When teaching, instructors should consider demonstrating the complexity of information’s creation and evaluation, involving students in “reflection upon the sources they use and investigating their different purposes and intents,” questioning the privileging of peer reviewed articles, and focusing or structuring one’s teaching activities upon students’ experiences and voices (Angell & Tewell, 2017, p.114).

Angell & Tewell’s practice is simply one way of addressing the evaluation of sources and conservation of authority in information literacy sessions. Some librarians utilize the CRAAP Test in their classrooms. CRAAP has traditionally stood for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose and is a popular tool to teach resource evaluation to students. In a 2018 article, the CRAAP Test was introduced to students in an undergraduate science writing course. This article poses the question, “Are students really learning to think critically about resources when the resources don’t have any identifiable flaws?” (Lewis, 2018). The author utilized the CRAAP Test to dive deeper into the given source to determine its credibility and appropriateness from the easily identifiable aspects (i.e. date, author, publisher) and by also exploring the more complex concepts of evaluation (such as bias, data without corresponding sources, etc.). The author found that while this tool can be useful when evaluating both scholarly and popular resources, this method was especially useful when applied to web-based information. The author concluded that the CRAAP Test can offer a foundational framework for students to evaluate sources and students “still need to be able to think critically about the quality of information they find” (Lewis, 2018).
hands typing on a laptop

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

I’ll end this post by highlighting a cool tool that came through the listservs recently on the topic of evaluating sources. Thanks to Jennie Callas from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside who posted this to the Information Literacy Instruction Discussion List (and who “lightly adapted” it from UW-Greenbay) — introducing: Rate My Source. Rate My Source is an interactive, web-based tool that teachers can introduce in their information literacy classes and encourage students to utilize at home. Here’s how it works: first, you enter in the title or URL of the source you plan to evaluate. Next, it asks the user a series of questions meant to probe the user into thinking about the different aspects of the source (i.e., date published, author, etc). It’s hands-on and easy to use, asks appropriate questions that get the user thinking, and provides the user with an explanation for each selection they choose (for example: when asked the date of the source, if you choose “more than 10 years old” it replies with, “Many fields of study value more current research, but there are some exceptions. Think about the importance of currency to your topic. For historical topics, it’s a good idea to check for more recent sources, but for rapidly-changing topics it is essential”). However, the tool does tend to categorize most answers into “right” and “wrong,” although there are some exceptions. This may be somewhere that some librarians may want to allow more fluidity. In that regard, this tool could be certainly customized or copycatted for a similar use at your institution or used as-is, so be sure to check it out. This tool certainly cannot replace information literacy sessions and interaction with a librarian, but it could be a useful takeaway for students to use at home with the disclaimer that when in doubt, ask your librarian!

While I am not here to tell you which method is best for addressing evaluation and authority in your classroom, I wanted to provide context of the ACRL Framework and some practiced examples. We also have to remember that criteria for source evaluation “must stay current as popular information sources change” (Angell & Tewell, 2017, p.100). Hopefully this blog post will inspire you to think about how you approach these topics at your institution.

Sources Consulted:

Angell, K., & Tewell, E. (2017). Teaching and Un-Teaching Source Evaluation: Questioning Authority in Information Literacy Instruction. Communications in Information Literacy, 11(1), 95–121. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=llf&AN=124079328&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Association of College and Research Libraries (2016). Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education [PDF file]. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

Lewis, Abbey B. (2018). What Does Bad Information Look Like? Using the CRAAP Test for Evaluating Substandard Resources. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, no. 88. Retrieved from http://www.istl.org/18-winter/tips2.html.

University of Wisconsin, Parkside (2019). ENGL 100-101: Rate My Source. Retrieved from https://libguides.uwp.edu/engl100-101/ratemysource.

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