home | what is a reliable resource | types of resources |


publishing source

This is an important fact to consider. If the source of the report or research is funded by an organization that has a vested interest in the results of the study, its reliability may not be as great as otherwise. For example, a study of the health effects of tobacco smoking funded by the American Tobacco Institute--a research organization funded by the tobacco industry--may not be as reliable as a similar study funded by the non-partisan National Institute of Health.

Another aspect to consider is the potential for conflict of interest between the report and the source of support or the publisher of the material. For example, all of the impact assessment studies that monitor the release of pollutants are conducted by the potential polluters themselves. Therefore there is a conflict of interest between what is reported and who is reporting it. Such conflicts question the reliability of the study.


has the material been peer reviewed?

Peer review means that the study and its results have been reviewed by a group of people with the necessary expertise to assess the merits of the work. Peer review is the system of "checks and balances" in science.

Peer review occurs in two contexts. First, there may be review of "factual" material, for example when a web site presents what is known about some medical condition. The second context is the publication of original research or a review of original research.

Before the results of scientific research are published in a peer-reviewed journal, persons trained and active in the same area of research review the manuscript. Reviewers check to make sure that the methods and statistical tests employed in the research are appropriate and that the conclusions of the study are justified given the data presented in the study. If there is a problem with the study or the conclusions, the paper is not published. This review process helps ensure that only properly conducted research is presented in scientific journals.

Peer review is subverted, however, if the reviewers have a vested interest in the results of the study they are reviewing. "Creation scientists" review each other's work but do not have their work reviewed by biologists or earth scientists who may not have the same preconceived conclusion as they do.

Because peer review is of such importance in establishing the reliability of the information, knowing whether a source is reviewed and who has done the reviewing are important aspects to consider when evaluating a source.

To find out whether a journal is peer reviewed:

  • Check Ulrich's Plus (this link brings you to the JMU Library site, which will allow direct access to this resource, simply click on the link!)
  • Check the journal's homepage or the journal itself (at the Library). In particular you might try looking at the "About the Journal" or the "Instructions to Authors" sections.



authors

Knowing something about the author is also important in establishing reliability. This sounds very daunting. How can we assess the work of someone we do not know? One thing that we can judge to some degree are the credentials of the author. Does the author have expertise on the subject? Is he affiliated with institutions that themselves appear to represent experts on the subject and that may not have a vested interest in the results?

How do you find out?

  • Look at the source to see if it tells you anything about the author's credentials.
  • Check a biographical source.
  • Many internet sources do not give the identity or credentials of the author or producer. Sources that do not give this information have questionable reliability.


timeliness

Knowing when the information was obtained or reported is important. Because scientific findings are happening all the time, some information can become "yesterdays news" very quickly. A program on TV appeared to be a documentary on the Shroud of Turin, a religious relic that was believed by some to be Christ's burial shroud. What the program didn't mention, presumably because it was made more than several years ago, was that, with the Church's permission, the shroud has been radiocarbon dated and has been determined to be from the 13th century and, hence, cannot be the relic is was thought to be.


additional references

Reliable sources of information provide references to the sources of information they are presenting. These references allow you to check the original information yourself to verify that it is being accurately conveyed.