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IDSC 100: Civil Discourse in a Troubled Age

Professors Chico Zimmerman and Sindy Fleming -- Fall 2020

3 Quick Strategies for Finding Reliable Information

Typing a sentence into Google only gets you so far. When digging through Google results or otherwise, try the following:

  1. Go directly to a known, authoritative source and dig there (don't rely on Google to surface the best information)
  2. Try a compendium (see this guide) when you don't know what an authoritative source might be.
  3. Look around in recommended sources (like the ones on this guide)

Also useful tips

  • You can always ask a librarian for suggestions :)
  • What is an authoritative source? Government web sites are a great start. Other kinds of sources might be research organizations and published research articles. 
  • Special operators in Google: 
    • "" to search a phrase
    • site:.gov or site:.edu to limit to governmental or educational web sites
    • add the terms library or guide to focus on advice from librarians
    • filetype:pdf or filetype:xls will limit to PDFs and Excel file formats in Google

Public Opinion

Government Agency Web Sites

While government agency web sites (at the national, state, and local levels) can be overwhelming, keep in mind that they are incredible stores of data on issues of concern to the public. Many of these web sites are still not designed for search engines, so it can be necessary to dig within them instead of searching with Google or other engine.

To prevent getting lost in the weeds, look for the following things:

  • Issue briefs
  • Topical guides
  • Yearbooks, annual reports or compendia
  • Data or Statistics sections that allow you to create your own table for download

Below are some of these librarians' most frequently consulted government web sites.

Additional Places to Look

Factors to Consider When Evaluating Statistics

Source

  • Who collected it?
  • Was it an individual or organization or agency? 
  • The data source and the reporter or citer are not always the same. For example, advocacy organizations often publish data that were produced by some other organization. When feasible, it is best to go to the original source (or at least know and evaluate the source).
  • If the data are repackaged, is there proper documentation to lead you to the primary source? Would it be useful to get more information from the primary source? Could there be anything missing from the secondary version?

Authority

  • How widely known or cited is the producer? Who else uses these data?
  • Is the measure or producer contested?
  • What are the credentials of the data producer?
  • If an individual, are they an expert on the subject?
  • If an individual, what organizations are they associated with? Could that association affect the work?

Objectivity & Purpose

  • Who sponsored the production of these data?
  • What was the purpose of the collection/study?
  • Who was the intended audience for or users of the data?
  • Was it collected as part of the mission of an organization? Or for advocacy? Or for business purposes?

Currency

  • When were the data collected? Not always close to when they were released or published -- there is often a time lag between collection and reporting because of the time required to analyze the data.
  • Are these the newest figures? Sometimes the newest available figures are a few years old. That is okay, as long as you can verify that there isn't something newer.

Collection Methods & Completeness

  • How are the data collected? Count, measurement or estimation?
  • Even a reputable source and collection method can introduce bias. Crime data come from many sources, from victim reports to arrest records.
  • If a survey, what was the total population -- how does that compare to the size of the population it is supposed to represent?
  • If a survey, what methods used to select the population included, how was the total population sampled?
  • If a survey, what was the response rate?
  • What populations included? Excluded?

Consistency / Verification

  • Do other sources provide similar numbers?
  • Can the numbers be verified?