6 key strategies for finding reliable information online

Is this reliable information?

Research tells us that recent college graduates lack the skills needed to find the best answers to solve problems in the workplace. They lack persistence and rely on initial search results rather than using more sophisticated strategies. They also struggle with finding reliable information for every day life needs, such as buying a car or making a health decision.

Librarians need to take the lead in helping people search more strategically. 

We need to help our users:

  1. Focus first on the best source for a piece of information
  2. Avoid the psychological traps that can occur during the search process
  3. Understand the power and limitations of information from a crowd, an amateur, and an expert. 
  4. Investigate, like a detective, the context of a piece of information.
  5. Corroborate a piece of information differently, based on circumstances.
  6. Make conscious decisions about how far to go when vetting a piece of information.

Step One: Admit there is a Problem

Several years ago I was attending a conference at Harvard University. Two brilliant educators were presenting, and we were all listening with rapt attention as a busy back channel of questions were popping up on the screen behind the speakers.  

One question kept surfacing:

What are the best sources for us to learn more about this topic?

As the speakers tuned in to address this question, I could feel the audience lean forward, pulling out phones and slips of paper to jot down the key articles and books these experts would recommend. Instead, my heart sank as both speakers said: 

“Well… if you Google these words, you’ll find a lot of information out there.”


Down the Information Rabbit Hole

This event and dozens of experiences like it, led me to think more deeply about how we go about finding reliable information. After twenty years of teaching information literacy at the university level I decided to take a step back and rethink everything I knew about evaluating information and locating credible content. 

I embarked on a series of “information adventures” by choosing topics I was interested in and taking a deep dive into how best to go about finding and evaluating the information I uncovered. I spent months investigating whether red wine has health advantages, whether dogs exhibit some rudimentary form of empathy, and the degree to which one can trust user review sites for travel, restaurants, and products. I also dug deeply into the research on information evaluation: on the credibility of Wikipedia, the veracity of user reviews in different venues, and investigations on how Google, Facebook, WebMD and other tools determine what information they serve to us.

Though I consider myself an expert on information literacy, I was shocked to discover how much I did not know. As I plummeted down the information rabbit hole I learned about blackhat and white hat search engine optimization, astroturfing, the Deep Web, the Internet Water Army, native advertising, and fascinating psychological concepts such as herding behavior, “proof by repeated assertion,” self-reinforcing information spirals, and the persuasive intent heuristic.

The Top 5 Hits in Google = Reliable Information?

Research tells us that people overly rely on Google and that they assume that what comes up in the top five hits in a Google search is the most reliable information to be found on a topic. For certain kinds of searches Google is often terrific, but for many searches Google is not able to keep on top of the search engine optimizers, and Google itself manipulates search results for commercial gain. Appearing in the top five results of a Google search sometimes has little correlation with being trustworthy.

Three years of delving into the research from many different angles and disciplines led to a book describing my investigations: Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an Information Sleuth.The book uses storytelling to describe my information quests, and it boils down my three-year trek on finding reliable information into six key strategies. 

The following is a brief introduction to these strategies.

1. Start at the Source

The most important conclusion I reached was that we need to shift our thinking and focus more on locating a reliable source for the information that is being sought rather than just hopping on a search engine or database and seeing what information floats to the top.This seemingly simple but complex idea involves conceptually changing the focus of the search: To hunt for a source for the information first and then the information itself. By taking control of the sources viewed, half the job of evaluation is completed up front, before even reading a piece of information.

Starting at the source might involve a simple decision such as beginning a search with Google Scholar instead of Google, but it sometimes involves a lengthier and more sophisticated strategy.

2. The Psychology of Search

As I devised strategies to answer my research questions I uncovered a new (to me) area that I call the “psychology of search.” This strategy looks at the psychological baggage we bring to the search process. We have a tremendous impact on our search results: the potential for bias in how we ask questions, how easily we are “satisfied” or willing to settle, the influence of “name” brands and reputations, and social factors all influence our search results. By developing metacognitive habits - thinking about how we are thinking – we can adjust our search behavior so that we are not easily swayed by unreliable information.

Daniel Kahneman’s research on fast and slow thinking and the current research coming out on information heuristics underlines how much the psychology behind the search impacts our results. Information heuristics are types of shortcuts we often take in searching for information. For example, the Bandwagon Heuristic involves assuming that if many others think something is correct, it must be correct. Heuristics can be a double-edged sword: they can reduce the amount of cognitive effort used in information seeking, but they can also lead to systematic biases or errors in judgment.

3. Expert, Amateur, Crowd.

As I studied the reliability of experts and investigated the concept of crowd wisdom I went deep into the research on how we define expertise and also explored the necessary components needed to achieve a “wisdom of the crowds” effect.

By understanding when expertise can be valuable and when a crowd or an amateur can contribute reliable information, people can then make a conscious decision on where to look for information and what types of information can be trusted. There are not always easy answers: For high stakes searches often a combination of types of information is desirable, but there are also times when expertise provides richer, more complex, and more reliable information. For a medical decision we may want to consult an expert, but for dating advice a peer might be the superior source.

4. Context, Motivation, and Bias. 

Context relates to everything surrounding the information including the motivation for the search you are conducting: Pub bet? Research paper? And context also includes determining the purpose of a piece of information, understanding how it was constructed, whether it was vetted, edited, peer reviewed, and formally published. By figuring out context we can better understand the motivation and potential bias of a piece of information.

Many of us rely on a few trusted sources for many of our information needs, but we need to be both flexible and skeptical and adjust our strategies according to the importance of a particular search. Often we will want to take charge and control the context ourselves: if we are researching bee colony collapse we might want to search a biology or science database such as PLOS.org, rather than rely on what comes up first on Google: a four paragraph article from Forbes suggesting a simple cause of colony collapse and surrounded by advertisements.

5. Comparison and Corroboration.

Scholarly research involves basing new research on previous findings. Research is not conducted in a vacuum. When carrying out a comprehensive literature review on a scholarly topic, comparison and corroboration are built into the process. But for many every-day-life searches we pop in and look for a quick answer. If we pop in to an extremely trustworthy source and the information topic is a low stakes issue, we may need to use only a bare bones comparison and corroboration process. But even confirming a simple piece of information can be challenging because so much information is rebroadcast and regurgitated across the web. The comparison process needs to involve using independent resources and the corroboration process involves unpacking the factual claims and confirming that they hold up. 

6. Going Deep, or Not. 

Searching for information is an iterative process fraught with continual choices: where to look, how far to go, how many sources to read, what types of sources to go after. Taking a piece of information and uncovering the back-story –and every piece of information has a back-story—can be a lengthy process. How was it created? Who is this author? What is the purpose? Do others agree? What is it based on? An important component of the search process is recognizing when a quick piece of information will suffice and when it is going to be a long night.

Do you think people are beginning to understand the limitations of a Google search and are realizing they may need to develop more sophisticated search strategies to find reliable information?

Finding reliable information online

About the book

Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an Information Sleuth by Leslie F. Stebbins uses stories or "information adventures" to illustrate the best approaches to searching for information and to help us develop our aptitude for locating high quality resources in a rapidly changing digital environment that is becoming proficient at monopolizing our attention with useless or unreliable information.

We're supporting safer internet day 2016

Safer Internet Day 2016

Today, 9 February 2016, is Safer Internet Day, which is a celebration that sees hundreds of organisations get involved to help promote the safe, responsible and positive use of digital technology for children and young people. It is coordinated in the UK by the UK Safer Internet Centre.

This year's theme is to inspire a kind, respectful and inclusive internet, and help raise awareness about the issue of online hate.

CILIP is a supporter of Safer Internet Day and believes that librarians and information professionals, especially school librarians and children’s specialists in public libraries, have a vital role in teaching children effective and safe use of the internet and pointing them to online resources. They also advise parents, carers and others with responsibilities for children.


Safer Internet Day logo source: saferinternet.org.uk


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