Welcome to the tutorial, "Critical Thinking and the World of Information." This tutorial will introduce you to the academic research process and how to critically evaluate information sources. You will use a live internet browser on the right side of the screen while reading and following instructions in this column.
This tutorial takes you through the early stages of researching a current issue. Questions along the way will help you interact with the text and a quiz at the end will check your understanding. You will be able to email your quiz results, as well as your answers to the questions in the tutorial, to yourself and your instructor.
Most links in this grey box will open in the browser window on the right, but some will open a new browser window. Read the instructions to tell them apart. The sliding bars on the window's right and bottom sides will let you move around the browser frame.
Click the right arrow below to advance.
By the time you complete this tutorial (it will take about an hour), you will understand better how to:
These skills will be useful every time you need to write a paper with sources at UST, or even when you wish to become a better-informed citizen. In addition, you will learn to take advantage of the rich library collections available to you as a UST student.
Please complete the survey and then click submit. This will help introduce you to the skills of the tutorial, and provide valuable, anonymous information for developing the library instruction program. All these questions will be answered for you in the course of this tutorial.
Once you've clicked submit, click the right arrow below to continue.
Please take five minutes or so and briefly read the piece. This case will not be the focus of our research, but the story is compelling and close to home. You may not have known that cases of wrongful conviction have become an important issue in Texas and elsewhere, and that students and other volunteers have been working to address this injustice.
For this sample research project, we will be working in the discipline of psychology to better understand why some persons have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. We will start by using the website of an organization that pursues claims of wrongful conviction, the Innocence Project, to learn more about the ways evidence used in court can fail to reflect the truth about a crime. Click the right arrow below to advance.
News articles, blogs, and social media postings can help you learn about unfamiliar issues. They usually do not assume you know very much about the topic, and don't take long to read.
On the other hand, a lot of false and misleading information is shared through social media. Recently, this tutorial's author read a CNN.com story about a giant meteor predicted to strike the Earth. The story was linked on Facebook, and users kept seeing the headline after the original story was withdrawn as false. Clearly, we must evaluate sources before we start to rely on their information content. Click the right arrow to advance.
Whenever you use a website for information, you should think about who is behind the site, when it was last updated, why they created and maintain it, and how valid its content is. Generally speaking, a reliable site will always be straightforward about its sponsors, its currency, and its purposes. How well does www.innocenceproject.org hold up under these criteria?
Look at the brown and black tabs on top of this page. Which tab do you think will most efficiently give you information on this site's sponsors?
Click the right arrow to continue.
Scroll down the "About Us" page and click to a few of the linked pages (use the "About Us" button to return to that page). Look for information that helps reinforce the trustworthiness and authority of the site's sponsors. For example, you may recognize such members of the Board of Directors as novelist John Grisham, or the Texas State Senator from Houston, Rodney Ellis. The organization's demonstration of financial transparency also helps to establish its credibility.
Why might this website want to gain your trust as a visitor?
Click the right arrow to advance.
In addition to being clear about their sponsors, reliable websites tend to update frequently. Try to find evidence on the Innocence Project site that it has been recently updated (hint: try the News and Events tab).
Websites always have purposes for communicating to their audience. Many websites have commercial interests which can affect their reliability. Is the website giving a certain message in order to increase sales of some product? Is the website filled with distracting advertisements?
The Innocence Project is a non-profit organization, as shown by its ".org" URL. It is affiliated with Yeshiva University in New York City and has a clear mission to benefit the wrongly convicted. However, many ".org" sites are affiliated with corporations and other organizations operating with a commercial or other type of bias. For example, the "consumer site" meatsafety.org is funded by the American Meat Institute (http://www.meatami.com/; these sites will open in a new window), which advances the commercial interests of the meat industry. Sometimes you need to dig to find the sponsors of information and their interests!
The depth and quality of a website's content is another important indicator of its reliability. For a sample of the Innocence Project site's informational content:
Briefly read through this page. If you wish, you may view the video; however, note that it deals with an experience of sexual assault and may be troubling to some viewers.
As you review the page, pay special attention to the way sources are highlighted and linked from the text. Also look through the hyperlinked list of Resources at the bottom of the page.
The Eyewitness Misidentification page seems designed to give you a summary and overview of complex information in a way that is readily understood and trusted. Findings of numerous scientific studies are boiled down to revealing examples and suggested reforms. In addition, links are provided to published studies, further adding to the site's authority.
Sources like this page, that interpret and summarize information, are useful for gaining understanding about an issue, and for directing researchers to primary sources such as scientific studies. As a university student, you would be expected to follow the trail to primary sources so that you can judge the evidence and reasoning behind the page's conclusions.
How do you find helpful pages like this one? A search engine like Google is one answer, but the way search engines work does not always lead to good results for researchers. Click the right arrow to learn more.
As an interesting exercise with Google:
You will see that The Innocence Project is one of the top results for this search. Does this high ranking mean that The Innocence Project is a reliable source?
Close the page of search results. Then try this:
One of the top results, named "Martin Luther King Jr. - A True Historical Examination" and located at www.martinlutherking.org, is actually a white supremacist website with very biased and negative views of King and the Civil Rights movement in general (please consider not clicking on this link, since site visits may help to further increase the site's ranking as a search result).
What can we conclude from these examples?
Google's search rankings are determined by a site's quality as an information resource.
To review: sponsors, currency, purposes and content are crucial issues to consider when using information from the web. Some websites are clearly biased and unreliable. But even when websites present reliable information, researchers may need to go beyond them to access and evaluate primary sources.
As you go further in your investigation of a topic, you will want to use sources with more depth and evidence than many websites provide. For the next part of this tutorial, we will learn about a method of deepening our knowledge that is both old-fashioned and cutting-edge: reading books. Click the right arrow to advance.
Far from obsolete, books can be an important and useful source of information in many fields. In fact, access to current academic books in print and online is one of your key library privileges.
In this section of the tutorial, we will learn about the structure and format of academic books, and how to find both print books and e-books in the library catalog to get a deeper understanding of our topic. Click the right arrow below to continue.
Which resource do you think will help you find books?
Please do not click the catalog button yet (or a new window will open). Click the right arrow to advance.
Let's try one example. A well-known book in the movement to overturn wrongful convictions is titled, Actual Innocence. To see if we have this book:
Is this book owned by Doherty Library?
Click the right arrow to advance.
What if you don't know a book's title or author? What if you want a book on a topic?
It's time to learn about keywords.
Keywords are important words and phrases from your research topic. Titles and descriptions of books and other resources you want will probably contain these words and phrases.
The library catalog is basically a database of book descriptions (title, author, subject, etc.). When you search your keywords in the library catalog, you are requesting a list of all the catalog's book descriptions, or records, that contain your keywords.
innocent AND conviction
With the "AND", you are telling the catalog you want only records with BOTH of these words.
If you had searched, innocent OR conviction, do you think you would have gotten:
This catalog record gives you basic information on the book and its contents. A few things to notice:
Why all the authors? This book is an edited collection, or anthology, that gathers together experts in different aspects of this topic to each write a chapter in their area of focus. For example, Gary L. Wells (chapter 8) is a known expert in problems of eyewitness misidentification (A professor at Iowa State University, he also has lots of material on his home page here (NOTE: site will open in new window)).
Edited collections can be great starting places for research, because each chapter gives you an expert's overview of a specific subtopic. At this stage, understanding how your topic is organized, and how to focus your research on a specific subtopic, are essential steps.
This time, scroll down to the ebook record, Convicting the Innocent [electronic resource]: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong by Brandon Garrett. We also have the print version of this book, so be sure to find the "electronic resource" listing.
Unlike the previous book, this is a book by a single author (known as a monograph). This book is available electronically through the library's e-book holdings.
If you are off campus, you will be asked to log in with your CeltID and password; please do so so that you can access the online book. Click the right arrow below to advance.
This is a complete scanned version of Convicting the Innocent on our Ebrary platform, with the same text as the print version in our collection. The Ebrary platform allows you to read online, copy and paste, print, or temporarily download the book; you can also download Ebrary books to read using Adobe Digital Editions or the Bluefire Reader mobile app.
Look at the table of contents. Now is a good time to point out several features of academic books in general:
In short, use the book's organizational features to find the information you need. The book is designed to help you read more efficiently.
Many aspects of the library can seem mysterious at first, such as where to look for journals, or how to find books on the shelves.
Remember that you can always get help at the library.
Reference librarians answer library users' questions, consult with them on research projects, teach library class sessions and develop online learning materials to help you get more out of the library. The Ask Us page gives you several ways of asking questions and getting in touch with librarians. You can:
To review, books can be a highly useful and efficient resource for advancing your project. The library has large numbers of print and ebooks that can help you understand both how your topic is defined and how it breaks down into more focused subtopics.
Finding a subtopic to focus on can be a crucial step in the research process. Then, once you have developed your focus, it's probably time to get up to speed on the latest research. Journal articles are usually focused, specialized and advanced, helping to move forward the state of the field. Click the right arrow to continue.
When you do research at the university level, you start to see how the state of scholarly knowledge advances in the style of an ongoing conversation. Scholars work to advance our understanding of specific topics and then publish their findings for other scholars to debate, verify and advance from.
This "conversation" can be hard to follow if you don't already know a lot about your topic. It's even harder to make an original, significant contribution of your own.
For our purposes, we'll focus on how to find the articles you need to catch up with the current discussions in your field. Click the right arrow below to continue.
This article describes a study in which a sample of the general public answered questions about how they think memory works. Then, memory experts answered the same questions. For every question, the public's ideas about memory were very different from the research-based conceptions of the experts. This difference could support the argument that "common sense" understandings of eyewitness identification might not be scientifically valid.
Look through this article using the browser's scrolling bar. Find the following headings and briefly scan the contents under each of them:
Click the right arrow to continue.
Now look again at the Caveats subsection. In scientific research, the weaknesses and limits of the experiment are supposed to be admitted and explained in the article. Unlike other types of discussions, the scholarly conversation should not be about "winning" the debate but making careful, verifiable progress towards new knowledge.
Would you expect to find "caveats," or statements about the limitations of a study, on a website whose main purpose is persuasion?
Next, scroll down to the article's References list.
Scholarly publications always give citations to specific sources, so that readers can look up those sources for themselves. The references list also gives readers a record of the scholarly conversation-- these are the "voices" that this article responds to. You can use the information in the references list to look up books, articles and websites related to your topic (to learn how, see the featured answers on the Ask Us page, for example, how to look up the full text of an article; the links will open in a new window). Click the right arrow to advance.
Next, let's return to the very top of the page.
In the blue banner for PLoS One, it says that this is "A Peer-Reviewed, Open Access Journal." What do those two terms mean?
Peer review is a defining feature of a scholarly journal. Articles submitted to a peer reviewed journal are not simply approved by an editor. Instead, editors judge whether the article fits the journal's criteria. If it does, they send the article to fellow scholars (called peer reviewers or "referees") who carefully criticize and check the article's validity and significance. Most articles are then either sent back to the authors for revision or rejected outright. This publication process can last for several months to more than a year. Peer review has developed over time to become the scholarly community's standard method for ensuring the quality of its publications.
Open access means that this journal is freely available online for anyone to read. Instead of charging subscription fees, these journals sometimes charge the authors who publish in them, or are supported by an organization.
Are all scholarly journals open access?
UST's libraries subscribe to thousands of scholarly journals, primarily through online databases. These databases can help you find articles on very specific topics. Most databases focus on one general subject area. To see the library's list of databases:
As you can see, the library gives you access to numerous databases. But with an alphabetical list, it can be hard to choose the best ones for your research. To see the databases grouped by subject area:
Now, with the Databases by Subject list, we can ask the question, where can I find psychological studies on eyewitness identification issues?
Now, move your mouse over the names of the databases to get a sense of their contents (you may need to use the bottom sliding bar to see the descriptions).
Usually, the best database to start with for general psychology research is PsycInfo, which is combined here with PsycArticles.
This is the Advanced Search page for PsycInfo.
The three boxes on top are where you will enter your search terms. Notice that each box is connected with AND. Entering keywords in these boxes will help focus your results, as we will see.
Next, review the options under "Limit your results." These limits give additional options for focusing your results.
Find the places on the page where you can set these limits for peer-reviewed journals and for publication year or published date. These are probably the most important limits to remember. Then click the right arrow to advance.
How many results did you get?
Did you get more or fewer results after adding the keyword with AND?
Did adding an alternate keyword with OR lead to more or fewer results?
How do you think you could narrow your results further?
As you can see, many aspects of the article are coded and described in this database. When you need to do advanced research for your classes, these database features will become very useful for you (for example, by narrowing your article search by age group, or by looking for uses of a particular psychological test).
Many database records contain a link to "PDF Full Text" (check the left margin). This is a digital copy of the article, which you can download and keep. For articles without links to full text, click the red UST "Check Availability" button to see if a copy of the article is available from another source, such as a different database.
If the library does not have a copy of the article, you can request one from another library through Interlibrary Loan (see the Doherty Library Services page; the link will open in a new window).
Next, look on the right side of the article record, the "Tools" menu (you may need to use the bottom sliding bar to see it). These tools will help you to:
Always look for "subjects" and other keywords in the article record; these are often the best terms to use in future searches. Also, once you have found an article that is relevant for your research, don't forget to review the list of references in the article itself.
Finding all the relevant sources on a topic can be quite complicated. You usually have to try out multiple sources and strategies. This process takes time, and should not be left to the last minute.
Click the right arrow to conclude this tutorial.
This tutorial has given you a sense of the research process at UST. The library makes available vast resources to help you write insightful papers and even perform original research. Reference librarians are here to help you navigate those resources and succeed in your research projects.
Following this slide is the tutorial's quiz. After completing it, you can email your quiz results, as well as the results of the questions in the tutorial, to yourself and your instructor. You can also leave feedback on the tutorial-- we value your perspective!
Your quiz and question results will be sent automatically to an account monitored by the Doherty Library librarians, who will use the results anonymously and only for purposes of statistics and evaluation (for example, to improve the tutorial. If you wish the librarians to delete the record of your results, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thank you for completing this tutorial! Click the right arrow to access the quiz.
Quiz: Critical Thinking and the World of Information
The saying that scholarship is like a conversation means:
What does it mean when an article is peer-reviewed and open-access?
True or false: students should assume that books are irrelevant as research resources in the 21st century.
Which of the following are not part of the standard structure of a scholarly article in the social sciences?
True or false: nearly all scholarly journal articles are freely available on the web.
True or false: Google's search results are ranked according to a secret computer program that typically does not take account of a site's reliability or authority.
Which one of the following is not a sign that a website is reliable?
What is the difference between using AND and OR to add keywords to a database search?
True or false: In the research process, any book you use is expected to be read cover to cover.
True or false: The library provides only summarized, shortened versions of books in its ebook holdings.
Please enter your name and email address to retrieve a copy of your completed quiz.
You can enter multiple email addresses separated by commas. If you are doing this for a class, you may need to enter your instructor's email address also.