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Library Research Skills for Land and Food Systems: 3. Accuracy

3. Accuracy

  • Is the source part of an edited or peer-reviewed publication?
  • Can factual information be verified through references to other credible sources?
  • Based on what you already know about the subject, or have checked from other sources, does this information seem credible?
  • Is it clear who has the responsibility for the accuracy of the information presented? Is it on a site like Wikipedia which can be edited by anyone?
  • If data are presented in graphs or charts, is the source of the data clear?
  • Look at the NIPCC website and ask yourself if the information seems credible and accurate.
Why question the accuracy of a source?

In the scholarly publication process there are a number of steps journal articles go through called peer-review. When an author submits an article an editor can assign it to two, sometimes as many as four, independent referees, who have similar expertise to the author. The referees review the article and write reports that recommend acceptance, acceptance with minor changes, acceptance with major changes, or rejection. Acceptance rates vary depending on the prestige of the journal, and the entire process can take up to a year.

When you search the web, you will usually find a combination of online scholarly journal articles (many provided to you by UBC Library) and other websites. While individual websites may be written by experts and have some sort of editing process in place, there is no overall system for vetting the web. This lack of review and revision process means that not all Web pages are reliable or valuable. Documents can easily be copied and falsified, or copied with omissions and errors - intentional or accidental.

Data presented in a source may be original work by the author, or may be taken from another source. Just because data is presented in an attractive graph or chart, it doesn't mean it's accurate. For more information on good and bad graphs, see Gallery of Data Visualization.

  • Is there a date stating when the document was originally created?
  • Is it clear when the source was last updated, revised or edited?
  • Are there any indications that the material is updated frequently or consistently to ensure currency of the content?
  • If online, are any links to other websites current?
Why question the currency of a source?
Currency of information is particularly important in the sciences as findings can change drastically in short periods of time. How current the source you are looking at is relevant because you want to know that the information is updated or revised if necessary. On the other hand, some sources may remain authoritative even though they are older. Some older sources are "seminal works" which represent the starting point of a new discipline, or the jumping off point of a new way of looking at a problem. An example is Alan Turing's article, "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis," in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, 237B, 37-72, 14 August 1952.
  • Is the page free of advertising? If the page does contain advertising, are the ads clearly separated from the content?
  • Does the page display a particular bias or perspective? Or is the information presented factually, without bias?
  • Is it clear and forthcoming about its view of the subject?
  • Does it use inflammatory or provocative language?
Why question the objectivity of a web page?

If advertisements are present look for a relationship between the content of the page and the advertising. Are the advertising and content connected? Ask yourself if the sponsors of the advertisements could have sponsored the research reported.

For example: You find a Web page about a vitamin supplement and the page has advertisements flashing over it, selling the same health supplement. Be cautious and skeptical that the content of the page is without bias. Make sure that the information is factual, not just testimonials of satisfied 'customers'.

Check other sources to verify the information. Look closely at how information is presented. Are opinions clearly stated, or is the information vague? It is acceptable for a page to present a biased opinion, but you as the consumer of the information should know what that opinion is, it should be clear, not hidden.