Establishing Reliability of Information Sources
(What is "reliability" and how does it relate to science?)
 

When you write an essay or other explanation of principles and processes in this class, you need to refer to published literature, spoken comments you have heard, and to information you obtained from the web. Establishing the reliability of the information is important, and you as the writer are responsible to make a serious attempt to verify your sources.

Note: The most common mistake in essays is expressing opinions without substantiation. For example, if you conclude a statement is reliable, reference the evidence for your conclusion footnotes or endnotes. A reader must be able to trace your logic and review your substantiation.

Establish if the information is:

  • an editorial (opinion and point of view of an informed person), 

  • authoritative publication (reviewed for accuracy and completeness by an editorial policy or peer review),

  • propaganda/advertising (selectively published for purposes of self interest of the writer/publisher, often without review for accuracy and completeness or balance), or 

  • unspecified accuracy.

In an essay, you can have an endnote (Word 2002 toolbar command: Insert > Reference > Footnote > select Endnote) that describes the characteristics of any particular publication source once and not repeat the same substantiation if other references are taken from the same source. Look in following issues of the publication to see if there were rebuttals or other comments about an article published previously. Each source must be described and documented as reliable, or reliable with reservations that are specified. Obviously, an unreliable source is not useful unless your objective is to give examples of such sources.

Sometimes it is difficult to obtain this information, particularly when the information is propaganda or advertising designed to direct your conclusions in a predetermined way. It likely will be disguised, and it will be written in ways that appear to be authoritative. Web sources are always suspect, and some are particularly prone to give of misinformation. When in doubt, be skeptical! You can report substantiating evidence that is reliable to support less well substantiated information when they are consistent.

For web sites, determine:

  • who makes money or gains influence from the web site,

  • who pays the expenses for construction and maintenance of the site, 

  • what organizations it may represent, 

  • if there is a statement of policy or principles posted on the site,

  • if there are "editors" or "reviewers" who's reputation can be checked (look for their reputation by entering their name in Google and searching; if they have been "in the news" you will likely find out about them)

Clues may also be found from the nature of hyperlinks leading from the site, and the context of the information that is associated with the hyperlinks. Be prepared to make a serious effort for any web citations you make to determine this reliabilitySummarize in your endnote reference to a source what you learned about it's reliability.

For academic uses, the information may be less likely to be used as propaganda, but read the information critically and apply the test:

"Does this present the positive, negative and neutral aspects fairly, and is the information given with associated indications of the uncertainties associated with conclusions?

If the information is derived from a scientific publication with stated policies of conflict of interest and transparency of authors and reviewers, it may be assumed the information is reliable. However, in recent years even an international journal of high quality, Nature, has been criticized, and the Editor may have been compromised by financial support by biased interests for some of the publications. This is a journal published by a for-profit company, which opens possibilities of conflict of business interest and scientific objectivity. A similarly prestigious journal, Science, is published by a non-profit organization with a stated policy of objectivity and a wide diversity of membership. Therefore, one can expect less opportunity of a conflict of interest. Nevertheless, bias can be subtle, and one should always maintain a healthy skepticism.