Working with Information

Rowena McGregor, Robyn Tweedale, Lyndelle Gunton, Emma Peters, Yvonne Rose, Susanne Schultz, and Karanpal Singh Sachdeva

People huddled over paper studying
Figure 7.1 Working effectively with information is key to successful study and research. Image by Zen Chung used under CC0 licence.

INTRODUCTION

Working effectively with information is key to successful study and research. The effective and ethical use of information, especially scholarly information, will form the basis for writing essays, assignments, reports and examinations, and constructing visual and oral presentations. It is important to learn how to find information that matters and understand why it matters. Information and information literacy will provide links between your life experiences as a student, the wider academic world of scholarship, and the post-academic, real world, and professional applications of learning.

This chapter is designed to help build your skills to become proficient and literate in how you find and use information. As an information-literate person, you will be able to:

  • Understand your information needs (When do I need information? What type(s) of information do I need?)
  • Determine where information is stored (Where is the best place to find this? Where should I search for the information?)
  • Develop the skills to find and access the information (What tools are available to help me find the information? How do I use these tools?)
  • Evaluate information to identify the “right” kind  of information, and discard the irrelevant information (Why is this information useful? Why do I trust this source of information?)
  • Use and communicate effectively the information as part of your writing and in the form your lecturer requires (How will I use the information?)
  • Record and manage information effectively (How will I keep track of my information sources?

Figure 7.2 outlines the importance of information and information skills for study and for life.

Infographic on when, what, where and why of finding information
Figure 7.2 Finding and Using Information. Figure designed by Tahnya Bella.

While working with information, it will be helpful if you are willing to develop critical thinking or the awareness of the need and ability to question what you read. This critical approach is the core of developing critical information literacy skills, not just during academic study, but throughout your life. Thinking critically will allow you to use information  to support and enhance (not replace) your own learning and ideas. Please see the chapter Thinking for more discussion on critical thinking.

WHAT IS INFORMATION?

Information takes many forms. We tend to think of information as being published in books, journals, magazines and newspapers. However, there are many other types of information – pictures, photographs, videos, cartoons, podcasts, tweets, social media posts, web pages, blog posts, and… the list is endless. Not all information is written text, and not all information is published officially.

It is important to note, however, that all information is considered the property of the owner or publisher, whether it is your course textbook, a blog post you found on Google, or a cartoon you found in Pinterest. Therefore, academic integrity, or the honest, respectful, and ethical use of information sources applies equally to all information. See the chapter Integrity at University to learn more about using information with integrity.

While you are studying, you may need to draw on many different types of information, depending on what you are creating, and how you will use it. Your lecturers will expect you to find relevant information sources, but they will also expect you to be careful and discerning to avoid fake or invalid information in an academic context. It is important to be able to identify not only the different types of information sources, but also which ones are most appropriate for your needs. Read on to learn about some of the information types you will most commonly use in the university environment.

SCHOLARLY INFORMATION

Scholarly information is written by qualified experts (often academics) within a university setting for scholars in a particular field of study. The author is identified, and their credentials are available. Sources are documented, and technical language is often used. Understanding this language requires some prior experience with the topic. Attending, listening to and participating in your lectures and tutorials and completing any assigned readings will help you to develop this understanding. Scholarly information has many forms. It can be categorised as primary, secondary or tertiary sources.

PRIMARY SOURCES

Old manuscript
Figure 7.3 Historians may work with ancient texts. Image by Håkan Henriksson used under CC-BY licence.

A primary source provides information collected and reported verbatim. Primary sources provide a first-hand account of an event or time period and are considered to be authoritative. They represent original thinking, report on discoveries or events, or they can share new information. Primary sources are often discipline-specific. For example, in the legal field, primary sources include court reports and legislation. Historians may work with ancient texts. Sociologists may study policy documents. Social scientists in all disciplines often work with interview recordings and transcripts. Other scientists work with raw data and statistics collected in the field, such as weather recordings, or from national repositories, such as population statistics. A primary source is usually analysed, critiqued, or directly discussed in your work.

SECONDARY SOURCES

Secondary sources involve analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of primary sources. Secondary sources come in a wide range of forms including scholarly books, journal articles, commentaries and documentaries. It may be an analysis of a literary or artistic work or a legal commentary.

Secondary information sources can form a significant percentage of information sources used for university assessment. Using and referring to a range of secondary sources that provide a range of interpretations and views can demonstrate quality information searching and a solid understanding of the topic.

TERTIARY SOURCES

You may come across mention of tertiary sources. These are primary or secondary information that has been condensed and rewritten in a simplified form. A textbook is a key example of a tertiary source. Fact sheets, indexes, dictionaries and encyclopedias are also included in this category.

TYPES OF SCHOLARLY INFORMATION

Primary, secondary and tertiary information sources can be provided in a range of formats as described below.

BOOKS

Mana in lib
Figure 7.4 It is best to use your textbooks to develop your understanding and familiarity with the discipline-specific language, and use and cite other forms of scholarly literature in your work. Image by Gerd Altmann used under CC0 licence.

Also known as a monograph, scholarly monograph, research monograph, or scholarly book, a book is written by one or more authors and published by a scholarly publisher. The book will discuss a specific topic and, even if it was written by a small team of authors, it will read as one cohesive text.

Traditionally, books have been produced in print format. However, most universities collect books in electronic format, known as ebooks. You will need a computer, or tablet or phone to access these books online. Not all titles will be available in electronic format so please consult your library catalogue or contact your library to enquire about the different options for accessing specific resources.

What about textbooks?

Strictly speaking, a textbook is a scholarly publication. However, textbooks tend to give a broad, general and introductory overview of a topic rather than the specific information you will need to respond to your assessment tasks. It is best to use your textbooks to develop your understanding and familiarity with discipline-specific language and then use and cite other forms of scholarly literature in your work.

Book chapter

Also known as a scholarly chapter, or scholarly book chapter, a book chapter appears in a book edited and written by many academics. A book chapter is a standalone resource. This means that although the book will discuss a shared topic, the chapters may present conflicting arguments and perspectives on that topic within the same book.

JOURNAL ARTICLE

Searching within scholarly journals will provide you with the most current information. Also known as scholarly, research, or academic, these journal articles, are written by experts in their field, use formal language and will provide you with information relevant to your university studies.

Peer reviewed journal articles are a type of scholarly journal article. The peer review procedure is a separate process where the article has been reviewed by one or more academics before publication. The review process ensures published articles are factually accurate, report scientifically validated results, and that biases or limitations are noted in the text. For these reasons, peer reviewed articles are highly regarded by academics. You may sometimes be required to refer to only peer reviewed articles when writing an assignment. Information on whether a journal is peer reviewed can usually be found on the journal’s website.

Original research article

Sometimes referred to as primary or empirical, an original research article reports on the new finding of a research project. Original research articles are considered primary literature.

Literature review article

The literature review journal article collates and analyses existing research in a field. Review articles are considered secondary literature. Some literature reviews attempt to include all the relevant research that addresses a specific question or area of interest. These literature reviews are called systematic reviews or systematic literature reviews.

PROFESSIONAL INFORMATION

Professional information sources are written for professionals in a field. The author is most often identified; however, sources are not always documented by citations and a reference list. The language may or may not be technical. A trade magazine is an example of a professional information source.

POPULAR INFORMATION SOURCES

Popular information sources communicate a broad range of information to the general public. The author is often not identified and may not be an expert. Sources are often undocumented. The language used is not technical. It is, therefore, difficult to assess whether a popular source is reliable. Popular information may also be commercial, aimed at selling something (advertising) or persuading to a viewpoint (political or propaganda). Examples of popular information sources include news reports, social media posts and websites.

GREY LITERATURE, ALSO GRAY LITERATURE

Grey literature is authoritative information, often published by government bodies and non-government organisations (NGOs). Grey literature is usually not published commercially and is often made available on an organisation’s website. The authors may be individual experts, a panel or a committee. Examples of grey literature include reports (including research reports and government reports), literature reviews (not published elsewhere in a journal), policy documents, standards, conference papers and theses or dissertations.

Conference papers

Conference papers may be presented at academic or professional conferences. Although some conference papers are reviewed, the process is rarely as rigorous as that required for peer reviewed journal articles.

Tip: If you find a relevant conference paper, check whether the authors also published the results in a peer reviewed journal, as an article will generally be viewed by your markers as being more credible than a conference paper.

Note: However, in fast changing disciplines such as information and communication technologies, conferences are highly regarded as the time taken to publish other forms of scholarly information may make them obsolete before they are available to read.

Theses or dissertations

Theses or dissertations form an important part of research. Theses and dissertations are usually deposited in a university’s repository on completion. A university repository is an archive of the institution’s research outputs. These repositories are a great place to start your search for theses and dissertations.

LECTURES AND LECTURE NOTES

Your lecturer may use an online learning management system (LMS) to deliver all your relevant course materials such as lecture recordings, lecture notes and reading lists. While these learning materials are not scholarly publications, there may be opportunities when it is appropriate to refer to such resources in your assessment.

FINDING PRINT AND ONLINE INFORMATION RESOURCES

You will need to find a variety of information to complete your study and assessment tasks. It is tempting to read a task and immediately dive into searching. However, a strategic approach will save time and enable you to access the highest quality resources in your discipline. By taking the time to clarify the content you are looking for, the appropriate genre/format/type of information for the task, and the best place to look for this information, you will ensure your searching is informed and efficient.

IDENTIFY WHAT YOU NEED

Scrabble letters that spell keyword
Figure 7.5 Identifying keywords to use as search terms will ensure your information search results are more targeted and useful. Image by Wokandapix used under CC-BY licence.

Before you search, read your assignment task or question carefully. Take note of or highlight all words that indicate the topic of your search. These words will form the beginning of your list of keywords. Also note any instructions around the type of information recommended – or required – to complete the search. This may be general (for example, scholarly sources) or specific (for example, peer reviewed journal articles published within the last five years). If you are unsure of any of the terms used to describe what you need to find, ask your lecturer or tutor before you begin your search.

IDENTIFY WHERE TO SEARCH

Knowing what you are looking for will help you to decide where to search. Scholarly information, grey literature and primary sources are located in a variety of online catalogues, collections and sites. Some of the places you can find these information sources are provided below.

Searching for scholarly information

Scholarly information is best found via a library search, a direct search of your university databases or via use of the search tool, Google Scholar. Library search (a search of your library’s online catalogue) and database searches have several advantages. These advantages are:

  • Subscriptions to journals and other electronic items allow you to access and download most of the information you discover
  • Powerful filters and tools can focus your search and reduce the number of irrelevant materials in the search results

Library search

Your library probably has an online catalogue. Searching or browsing this should allow you to discover most resources available through your library, including print and online resources with links to the full text of online journal articles and electronic books and chapters.

Databases

Databases are online collections of resources that you can search to find information. They may cover a particular subject area or a range of subjects. For example, you can search Medline to find medical data and articles.

Most databases:

  • have a peer reviewed or scholarly material filter to ensure you find reliable, authoritative information
  • offer advanced search features that allow you to focus your search.

You can search databases to find journal articles, but they may also contain other publication types such as books, theses, newspapers, videos and images. Databases usually have a “Help” section with a detailed explanation of how to perform searches.

Web search engines

Google Scholar, a Google tool that retrieves scholarly information, certainly has a place in your search strategy. Google Scholar will give an indication of what has been published on a topic. It can also be used to find additional keywords and phrases for your searches. Google Scholar can also be linked to your university library so you can directly access the resources available to you via your library subscription.

Searching for grey literature

Woman on iPad looking at medical image
Figure 7.6 You will need to find a variety of information to complete your study and assessment tasks. Image by RF._.studio used under CC0 licence.

Your library will likely have databases holding grey literature. These databases can usually be found by using the same techniques used to search for scholarly information. However, some specialist information is best accessed online via a Google Advanced Search.

The Google Advanced Search tool allows you to focus your search and restrict it to specific domains or websites. It is a two-part online search form. The top part of the form allows you to construct a search. Look carefully at the descriptors adjacent to the various search boxes to create the most effective search. The bottom half of a Google Advanced Search allows you to restrict your search by using a range of filters. You can search by language, geographical region, date of last update, document format and via site or domain to search a specific website. Please speak to a librarian for guidance on searching for grey literature.

Searching for primary sources

Primary sources are found in different places, according to genre/format/type of resource. Please speak to a librarian for guidance on searching for primary sources.

Newspapers

  • Current and recent newspaper articles may be available via electronic databases from your university or national library
  • Older newspaper articles may be available via national repositories provided by your national library. For instance, Australian newspapers can be accessed in the “TROVE” collection.

Legal sources: Legislation and case law

  • Books on sehlf
    Figure 7.7 Legislation and law reports are primary sources. Image by cottonbro  used under CC0 licence.

    Legal databases are provided by all university law libraries

  • National and international legislation and case law can be found on the World Legal Information Institute (WorldLII) website
  • Australian legislation and case law can be accessed on the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) website.
  • The laws of your country, state, or territory are also available online on court and government websites.

Data and statistics

  • Discipline-specific databases, provided by your library, are a useful source for statistics
  • World Statistics offers free and easy access to data provided by international organisations, such as the World Bank, the United Nations and Eurostat
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) provides official statistics on economic, social, population and environmental matters of importance to Australia.

SEARCH STRATEGIES

The search techniques described here focus on finding and retrieving scholarly information. Once you have established what you are looking for and where to look, you are ready to create a search. Your goal now is to locate the information you need while keeping the number of irrelevant results to a minimum. To achieve this, you will need to create a list of keywords and combine these appropriately for your search. You will then apply filters to discard many irrelevant results. The final task is to export and save the resources you identify as being most suitable for your needs. Some of the steps may need to be repeated as you develop your search strategy. Figure 7.8: Search Flow Chart illustrates the steps. A more detailed description of the steps follows.

Flow chart for searching through defining the term, creating a string , filtering results, and accesisng ifnroamtion.
Figure 7.8 Search Flow Chart. Figure designed by Tahnya Bella.

The first step is to define your terms. Begin by looking carefully at your task and highlight the content words – the keywords that describe the topic. Then brainstorm to create a list of all the synonyms or similar words and phrases that you think may be used to describe the topic in the scholarly literature. Test your list by searching your library’s catalogue, a database, or Google Scholar. Add any additional words and phrases you discover to your list. In the example provided in Figure 7.8, the phrase “hand hygiene” was added as it was found in an article retrieved in a test search. You may need to remove words that retrieve unwanted results. Keep track of your work in a table or list to avoid wasting time by repeating failed searches or losing effective searches.

The second step is to create a search string. A search string lists the keywords in a way the databases or other resources you are searching will be able to understand. Library search and most scholarly databases require you use language in a precise way. Figure 7.9 Library and Database Search Strategies explains this in detail.

Table of search straegies including the means of "And" "Or" and "Not
Figure 7.9 Library and Database Search Strategies. Figure designed by Tahnya Bella.

Note: Library search and most databases do not understand natural language, so we need to use a logical framework to structure the search. This structure requires that we use specific words called Boolean operators to join keywords together in a search string – AND, OR, and NOT. All letters in the words AND, OR, and NOT must be capitalised or they will often be ignored or automatically replaced with “AND”. Exact phrases must be enclosed in double quotation marks. To find all associated words starting with the same “stem”, add an asterisk after the stem of the word. For example, using the search term econom* will reveal search results for any sources that use economy, economical, economic, economics, economies. Finally, to search for a list of likely words, place the list within parentheses and separate them with OR. Test your search string and make any additions – or remove items – until you are satisfied that your search has captured the relevant resources.

The third step is to use filters to refine your search and remove unwanted results. Filters are a list of options you can select to remove results that are not suitable for your purpose. Filters vary according to the database but often include publication date, type of resource, and whether the resource is peer reviewed. Filters are located to the left of the screen in most databases. Please speak to a librarian for guidance on using filters.

The fourth and final step is to access the information. Library search and databases will have a few options for exporting your search results. Select one or more items from the list and either save the list to your computer or email the list to yourself. A saved list is useful should you wish to retrieve the documents at a later time or collect the details you need for referencing from the list.

When you are ready to download and read the information you have retrieved, you will need to find the option for exporting or downloading the portable document format (PDF) version of the information. Sometimes this may be in the form of a PDF icon. Where available, the PDF will be the official version of the article, book or book chapter. It will have the correct pagination and publication details (required for referencing) and will be the fully edited and finished version of the work.

EVALUATING INFORMATION

Man reading
Figure 7.10 Maintaining a strict adherence to verifiable facts is a hallmark of a strong thinker. Image by Oladimeji Ajegbile  used under CC0 licence.

The American Library Association notes the need to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (Association of College and Research Libraries, 1989). We need information almost all the time, and with practice, you will become more and more efficient at knowing where to look for answers on certain topics. As information is increasingly available in multiple and new formats, users of this information must employ critical thinking skills to sift through it all and determine what is useful or relevant. You likely know how to  find some sources when you conduct research. And remember, we think and research all the time, not just during study or on the job. If you’re out with friends and someone asks where to find the best Italian food, someone will probably consult a phone app to present choices.

This quick phone search may suffice to provide an address, hours, and even menu choices, but you’ll have to dig more deeply if you want to evaluate the restaurant by finding reviews, negative press, or personal testimonies.

Why is it important to verify sources? The words we write (or speak) and the sources we use to back up our ideas need to be true and honest. If they are not, we would not have any basis for distinguishing facts from opinions that may be, at best, only uninformed musings but, at worst, intentionally misleading and distorted versions of the truth. Maintaining a strict adherence to verifiable facts is a hallmark of a strong thinker. Many universities may use some kind of framework to help you evaluate the information you use. These frameworks focus on evaluation techniques and strategies, such as:

  • the credibility or credentials of the author, and whether they are an expert on the topic
  • looking for biases on why or how the information was published, for persuasive or propaganda purposes
  • the validity and reliability of the publisher, and how information is presented and packaged
  • the timeliness of the information, or whether it is regarded as current, and
  • the reliance on verifiable facts and evidence to support any claims or statistics.

This type of framework is a good place to start, especially when thinking about traditional, published sources such as books, ebooks, journal articles and resources from library databases. Two examples of these frameworks are called C.R.A.A.P. (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose) and R.E.V.I.E.W. (Relevance, Expertise, Viewpoint, Intended audience, Evidence and When published).

Although these frameworks provide you with a way to think carefully and evaluate information, they are not perfect, especially for web-based information sources that operate on different rules from traditional published sources (Wineburg et al., 2020). As Johnson (2018, p. 35) states, “No universal formula or checklist can replace the critical thinking needed to determine if information is credible, but checklists and formulas can be a starting point for many students.” You probably see information presented as fact on social media daily, but as a critical thinker, you must practise the art of validating facts, especially if something you see or read in a post conveniently fits your perception. It is important to remember that the internet is also renowned for spreading rumours, fake news and scams. Digital misinformation has even been recognised as a threat to society (Del Vicario et al., 2016). Be diligent in your critical thinking to avoid misinformation! Please speak to a librarian for guidance on developing your critical thinking skills and techniques for evaluating information sources.

An example of a contentious information source is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a source that many of us use every week for quick and simple information. However, most lecturers will not approve if you rely on Wikipedia for your research, and some may even explicitly forbid it. Why? Wikipedia is widely regarded as being of questionable reliability because it is a freely available source to which anyone can contribute and the authors cannot be identified (Angell & Tewell, 2017). So, any facts presented in Wikipedia need to be explicitly verified in other sources before you can rely on them for academic research. In general, it may be better to rely on other sources for your academic research. A professional, government, or academic organisation that does not sell items related to the topic and provides its ethics policy for review is worthy of more consideration and research. This level of critical thinking and examined consideration is the only way to ensure you have all the information you need to make decisions.

Other social media and news sources can be equally unreliable. We have all heard of “fake news”. When someone publishes an opinion or rumour, a lot of people will read it, and may even believe it without evidence. People tend to rely more on information that reinforces their own beliefs, values and opinions, and will tend to form communities with like-minded others (Del Vicario et al., 2016).  This may cause a phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias’, where people will look for this information to bolster their own perceptions and ignore any information that may discredit them. Part of critical thinking is striving to be objective and this is very important when it comes to recognising digital misinformation.

Some more strategies to help you evaluate web-based and digital information include:

Social media apps
Figure 7.11 Social media and news sources can be unreliable. People tend to rely more on information that reinforces their own beliefs, values and opinions, and will tend to form communities with others who are like-minded (Del Vicario et al., 2016). Image by Pxhere used under CC0 licence.
  • Who is responsible for the site (i.e., who is the author)? Check if the author has written anything else and if there are any obvious biases present in their writing. Is the topic within the expertise of the person offering the information?
  • Where does the site’s information come from (e.g., opinions, facts, documents, quotes, excerpts)? What are the key concepts, issues and “facts” on the site?
  • Can the key elements of the site be verified by another site or source? In other words, if you want to find some information online, you shouldn’t just Google the topic and then rely  on the first website that appears at the top of the list of results.
  • Can you find evidence that disputes what you are reading? If so, use this information. It is always useful to mention opposing ideas, and it may even strengthen your argument.
  • Who funds the website? You can check the “About” section of a website but remember that this is written by the people who are responsible for the website, so it may be biased.
  • You may choose to trust information more when it is published on a government (.gov) or academic (.edu/.ac) website but be careful about commercial (.com/.co) and non-profit (.org) websites because these are mostly unregulated.

For more information about digital literacy, see the chapter University Life Online.

MANAGING INFORMATION AND RESOURCES

Once you have constructed a search and retrieved the appropriate and relevant information, you will want to manage the information so that it is easy to find, access and retrieve whenever you may need it. If you don’t keep records of the information sources you find and use, it can be difficult to find them again. At a minimum, you will need to record the referencing details and links to digital information. It is also important to manage a backup system, either in online or separate physical storage, so you don’t lose all your own hard work.

CONCLUSION

Working with information is a skill that can be developed. Information literacy is an important skill for study and for professional life. Remember that quality information sources will always help you to demonstrate your understanding. Learning to effectively incorporate appropriate information sources into your writing and assessment will support your learning and enhance your success at university.

Key points

  • Working effectively with information is key to academic success.
  • There are many types of scholarly literature, and grey literature.
  • Scholarly information is written by academics and is valued at university.
  • Identify what kind of information you need for a task.
  • Identify where best to search for that kind of information for the task.
  • Employ specific search strategies to find the most appropriate information and limit irrelevant sources.
  • Evaluate information and think critically about whether it is the “right” kind of information, and discard the non-useful or irrelevant information.

References

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.https://doi.org/ 10.15760/comminfolit.2017.11.1.37.

Association of College and Research Libraries. (1989). Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final report. http://www.ala.org/acrl/publications/whitepapers/presidential

Del Vicario, M., Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., Stanley, H. E., & Quattrociocchi, W. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(3), 554–559. https://doi.org/ 10.1073/pnas.1517441113.

Johnson, M. (2018). Fighting “fake news”: How we overhauled our website evaluation lessons. Knowledge Quest, 47(1), 32–36. https://knowledgequest.aasl.org/.

Wineburg, S., Breakstone, J., Ziv, N., & Smith, MM. (2020). Educating for misunderstanding: how   approaches to teaching digital literacy make students susceptible to scammers, rogues, bad actors, and hate mongers (Working Paper A-21322). Stanford History Education Group. https://purl.stanford.edu/ mf412bt5333.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

We would like to acknowledge our colleague, Tahnya Bella for her contribution to the three diagrams in this chapter.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Academic Success by Rowena McGregor, Robyn Tweedale, Lyndelle Gunton, Emma Peters, Yvonne Rose, Susanne Schultz, and Karanpal Singh Sachdeva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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