People are doing more of their own research, and distinguishing good research from bad research isn’t always easy. Often, the information is needed yesterday and they’ve few resources, like access to quality databases or research support, to ease the burden. As for fact-checking? That’s something for journalists to worry about!
Basic criteria that distinguishes good research from bad
- Knowing how to find and use credible information sources.
- The ability to spot trustworthy information among all the misinformation being spread so generously and convincingly on the internet.
- Understanding of the subject matter, at least in the context of its intended use and audience.
With that foundation in mind, the following fact-finding tips will help you discern fact from fiction and substance from fluff.
Know the difference between primary and secondary sources
A primary source is original material, unfiltered through the interpretation or evaluation of others and created during the period of time you are examining. Primary sources include original diaries, news footage, autobiographies and official records, as well as creative works like pictures. Primary research involves the collection of data that does not already exist, including field work, surveys and controlled experiments.
Secondary sources and secondary research are a step or more removed. They involve summary, synthesis, analysis and interpretation of existing information. Most of the information that is freely available on the internet can be classified as a secondary source, including articles, commentaries and encyclopedias.
Rely On Trustworthy Sources
Turn to well-recognized, reputable sources to both gather and verify information.
- The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are examples of publications that can be relied upon for national and international news, financial information and U.S. federal government news.
- Local news publications and television/radio networks are the preferred source for regional and local information.
- The universe of great public, academic and special libraries, more of which are offering online access to at least some of their collections.
- LexisNexis, Dow Jones and Bloomberg are examples of organizations that provide reliable data on a variety of topics in business, law, finance and more. While these sources are not free, the right investments and effective use of these services can pay for themselves.
Include Multiple Verifiable Resources
If possible, try to find and reference multiple, diverse sources for a given piece of information. It will back you up and strenghten your subject matter expertise. Remember that articles from three newspaper publishers may not cut it, as newspapers these days rely heavily on the same wire stories. Also be leery of online news aggregators – sites like voxmedia.com and buzzfeed.com – which are really content aggregators more interested in the shareworthy than the trustworthy.
Be alert to erroneous information
The internet has created a rampant flow of misinformation, and our inherent, cognitive biases (more on that later) can lead us to believe something is true, especially when we see it in multiple places and it communicates exactly what we want to believe! Quantity does not mean quality. Librarians and other skilled research professionals are trained and accustomed to questioning these results and digging deeper to verify. As for the rest of us, it’s helpful to ignore the siren’s song and apply a healthy dose of skepticism.
Search one way and then another, approaching the topic from a different angle and posing different questions. This will help you discover different sources and different perspectives to validate your own argument, point out gaps or fallacies, and give you a more rounded, complete view.
Look for what is hidden
Organizations and individuals can be quite good at hiding information, whether intentionally and blatantly or more subtly through “spin”, omission and other tactics. The famous saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” (popularized by Mark Twain but attributed to Benjamin Disraeli) applies even in this era of big data, because we all focus on finding evidence in support of our argument, rather than information that might blow a hole through it. Finding hidden information isn’t easy, but the unknown is often the key to crafting a rock-solid argument as well as inspiring big ideas.
Building on the advice about looking for hidden information, it’s important to refrain from selecting the stories that reinforce your argument. There’s enough of the ‘echo chamber’ and ‘preaching to the choir’ effects in business, law, politics, academics, government and media. Seek to be objective in the sources you choose and consider all the facts and different points of view.
Beware of Superlatives
We see those terms used loosely and everywhere, even by reliable sources that are prone to describing themselves as “The leading source of xxx information on the internet.” Not everyone or everything can be the only, the first or the leading. Unless the claim is backed up with evidence, consider it more fluff than substance.
What About Wikipedia?
Wikipedia, the people-powered encyclopedia that seems to pop up in the Top 3 results of any Google search, can be a reliable source. Wikipedia does have documented verifiability standards. Do be wary, though, of entries that are flagged as being incomplete.
Keep in mind the Wikipedia Library:
The Wikipedia Library can be a good fact-checking and fact-finding resource, and it includes access to a variety of research tools and advice.
The muddy waters of digital marketing
You know an advertisement when you see one, right? Or do you? Digital marketing has become much more sophisticated and nuanced with sponsored content, branded content, advertorials and so on. While many companies are using these methods honorably and truthfully, just remember that the intended purpose of this information is to influence you and promote the sponsor’s business.
If it’s on the internet, it must be true.
We all know how ridiculous that notion is, and yet the speed of business, the wildfire spread of information and cognitive biases of all kinds conspire against us, often leading us to believe in something that is suspect or even false.
Fact-checking is part of the job for ethical, well-trained journalists, scholars and librarians. As a do-it-yourself researcher, following the above tips will give you two advantages:
- A Strong Defense – It’s much easier to deflect your critics when you have a handle on the full story and all points of view.
- Credibility – In any profession, one valuable currency we all trade in is trust. It can withstand only so much tarnish. Once broken, it can be difficult and in some cases impossible to repair.
Make fact-checking a key part of your research endeavors, to ensure the information you incorporate and share in your work is reliable and accurate.
More information on the psychology of belief
We humans have cognitive biases that lead us to affirm what we want to believe and dismiss everything else. The following resources will help you identify and understand these biases, to improve your research efforts and to empower you to inform and convince your audience.
The Persuasive Power of Repeated Falsehoods
This article describes just how persuasive a repeated falsehood can be. The source is Pacific Standard, a publication of the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy with a stated mission to offer information that can lead to change in both private behavior and public policy.
Social Media and Confirmation Bias
Bloomberg View reports on confirmation bias research that was conducted using Facebook data. This quote from the article sums it up nicely:
If people begin with a certain belief, and find information that confirms it, they will intensify their commitment to that very belief, thus strengthening their bias.
More About Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is our tendency to look for evidence that supports our point of view and essentially ignore or downplay everything else. This list of articles from Science Daily explores confirmation bias from a variety of angles to help you learn how to recognize and overcome it.
Science Daily covers the physical, biological, earth and applied sciences, showcasing science news from universities and research organizations around the world.
For objective, skilled research assistance
If your research needs are outstripping your capabilities and resources, consider LAC Group’s research support. As part of our Library as a Service® offering, you can gain access to permanent, temporary or project-based research from librarians and other research professionals who bring efficiency, objectivity and fact-checking reliability to every assignment.
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