Judging authority of a digitally-obtained resource

Paul Pival at The Distant Librarian has an really interesting post that includes the following:

I think students who have only researched through their computer monitor have a very hard time understanding what they’re looking at. Through the monitor, a page is a page is a page, whether it be from a scholarly journal, a book, Newsweek, a website, a chat window… There are almost none of the visual clues that are present in a more traditional physical piece of information that might make it easier to tell if you’re about to use a scholarly publication or a piece of crap in your paper.


And it’s not their fault! Think about it; if you’d never seen a physical scholarly journal, having grown up in East Rubberboot Saskatchewan, what frame of reference would you have? You’re told to access library resources through this magical screen, that also provides access to Google and Wikipedia, and hey, all these words on the screen kinda look like they come from the same place. Guess they all must be equal!

I have a different take on what exactly the problem is. I think the neccessary skill has always been information literacy. Before computers and the internet, librarians fretted (rightly!) that students would believe something to be true simply because it had been put into print. All that has changed is the container and/or delivery method.

Paul has a good point that the information on a computer monitor often has precious little context to aid the student in determining the content’s authority, but this isn’t a technology problem. This is an information literacy and education problem.

Paul writes later in the same post:

I was thinking about that when I saw a demo recently of one of the Gale InfoTrac products which, when viewed in IE but not Firefox, shows where on a physical page of a newspaper the article you’ve accessed appears. I like that! Kinda reminds me of what some of the handheld eBook readers do, which is attempt to show a representation of how many pages you are deep in a book, even though that’s a fallacy for that particular product. But it gives the reader a frame of reference.

I’m skeptical about the benefits of trying to build tools to help a student gauge authority by imitating print resources or making screen-based physical media metaphors. Print resources are dwindling, and all indications are that digital resources are going to keep growing and supplanting print resources. Now is the time to teach students how to use them (and how not to use them). In a few short generations, the references or metaphors to print media won’t even make sense to a college freshman, as the print resource won’t be a point of reference with which the freshman is familiar. Look at these excerpts from the Beloit College Mindset for the Class of 2009:

2. They don’t remember when “cut and paste” involved scissors.

13. They learned to count with Lotus 1-2-3.

49. Libraries have always been the best centers for computer technology and access to good software.

We shouldn’t make information clearer for them by relating it to physical media, we should do it by making better, clearer digital media.

Ken Varnum at RSS4Lib picks up on Paul’s concern and applies it to RSS feeds:

An RSS feed, especially one that is a search result, provides precious little context in which to judge the authority of the source. It’s sort of like deep linking into a web site to find the print-only, stripped-of-graphics, stripped-of-author version of a page. The impatient researcher (i.e., almost anyone with a deadline of, say, tomorrow) will grab the URL and take the work as it is.

I don’t think I can agree with this description of the current state of feeds. When I review the contents of of a feed I’ve generated via a search in an EBSCO database, the feed item links me to the entry in the database, which includes publisher, publication, date, author…everything that was available before the process was made loads faster by digital systems. More generally, most feeds link to an origin web page that contains this information if the feed item itself does not. Regardless, the impatient researcher described by Ken is a victim not of a flawed technology, but of a lack of education on evaluating and using information sources. This problem existed well before digital media, and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. The solution to the problem isn’t technological, it is educational.

Ken also writes:

Perhaps there should be some way of rating a web author as authoritative (or popular, authority’s online proxy).


Should RSS items come with a DIGG or Technorati rating in their header that could be displayed in an aggregator or used as a filter, set to a default of some positive score for those who choose not to customize their preferences?

I deeply dislike the idea substituting “popular” for “authoritative”, even if a reliable device could be built to properly measure “popular” (and neither Technorati nor DIGG really does this yet). Even if a device measures “impactful” by reporting on how many times others have linked to an item, this doesn’t neccessarily speak to the authority of the item.

4 thoughts on “Judging authority of a digitally-obtained resource

  1. Pingback: Information Wants To Be Free » Blog Archive » The good, the bad and the utterly hillarious

  2. Good point on the InfoLit, David, and that makes me realize that we librarians are as much of the problem as are the students who have no frame of reference. It feels like a situation where one is learning a foreign language and needs to constantly translate into the native language before being able to comprehend what’s just been said. Since I did grow up just before “it all went online”, I personally think about what it was in paper before it made it online, but obviously “the kids” don’t think that way. Will have to do some more thinking on how to teach (and think) across that gap…

  3. I think you’ve described the problem precisely, Paul- and I really like the metaphor of translation to one’s native language. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Information Wants To Be Free » Blog Archive » Do they care what they’re looking at?