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Critical consumers of information

In this video, Susan Halfpenny looks at the need to think critically about the sources we use.
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With the internet it’s really easy to access a whole range of information for free. You can get open access research papers, newspapers, opinions, encyclopedias, videos, reports, stuff on social media. You can access just about anything, and find out just about anything - all from a quick search. With so much information so readily available, as a librarian, I sometimes get a bit twitchy about how we are using this information, and maybe more importantly, how we are evaluating the information we find. One of the areas that I think it is worth reflecting on is the health information that we access online. For example, how many times have you tried to self diagnose an illness, ailment, or any health related issue online?
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I think this is something we have probably all done at some time or other. I’m not saying, that this is something we shouldn’t do. The thing we need to think about when searching to self diagnose, is where has the information we are reading come from? Is the information that we have found accurate and reliable? So for example, if I fell off this chair and bashed my arm. Obviously, the first thing I’m going to do is check online to see if its broken and find out what I should do about it. In this scenario, I wouldn’t just Google ‘have I got a broken arm’ with my good arm.
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I would instead go to the NHS Choices website and search there, as I know the information here is coming from a reliable source. If I’d just Googled this, I would need to spend time checking that the website I accessed was reliable, which in this scenario I might not have time for as my arm really hurts. I do think most of us will take some time to consider where the information has come from when we are self diagnosing. But what about when health information just pops up in our social media feeds or in the newspaper? Do you ever think to check the validity of the research behind the headlines?
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Or do you just think, for example, this app is going to help your wellbeing because such and such a body said it would, or it says so in the write up? If we are not checking the facts in these situations maybe we should be. Maybe we need to be critical consumers of health information even when we didn’t actively seek it. And especially if we are going to recommend it to someone else.
Never mind the quality… feel the width! With so much information available to us in the digital world, it’s important we choose wisely.
While most internet users understand that not all information they find online is truthful, 10% say they don’t think about whether the factual information they find online is truthful and close to one in five social media users wouldn’t make any checks on the trustworthiness of a news article on social media. (Ofcom, 2019, pp. 18-9).
In the example, in the video above, I am being discerning about the source of medical information. I’m not just going to search Google and click on the first link I get. Being based in the UK, I have chosen to find help from the National Health Service’s website NHS Choices, on the principle that it’s the public health services operator in the UK and politically accountable to government – details that ought to be some indication of reliability.
An evaluation cycle considering authority, audience, purpose, quality, content, currency, accuracy, and sustainability
The above diagram represents an accepted framework for evaluating information.
  • Authority Who’s doing the writing? Are they an expert in their field? Are they named at all?
  • Audience Who are they writing to? Experts? The general public?
  • Purpose Why are they writing? For the advancement of knowledge? For tenure? For money? For commercial interests?
  • Quality Where are they writing? Is it a credible source? Is it copy-edited and peer-reviewed? Is it tonally questionable: an angry rant in ALL CAPITALS or a childish font?
  • Content What are they writing? Is it supported by figures and citations? Is it full of adverts?
  • Currency When are they writing? Is it up to date or has it been superseded by new findings? Are all the links broken?
  • Accuracy Does what they’re writing stack up? Do the citations and data support what is being said?
  • Suitability Is what they’re writing actually appropriate for your needs?
We can simplify this model further, asking Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? to think about information before we deem it to be authoritative or factual. Information doesn’t have to pass all criteria to be relevant; but, when taken cumulatively, the criteria can serve as a guide to things which might cause us question.
If you’re interested in finding out more about evaluation techniques and being critical, take a look at the information on the University of York’s Being Critical Skills Guides.
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