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Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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6 Evaluating information

The ability to critically evaluate information is an essential skill for postgraduate study. Regardless of how much information you have found on your chosen topic, it is important to evaluate its quality and only use that which is pertinent to your research topic.

Your postgraduate study will involve investigating a wide range of primary and secondary sources of information (e.g. journal papers, academic textbooks and websites), and may also include some grey literature (e.g. governmental and NGO reports), as well as other sources of information. You may be familiar with some of these resources and trust their reliability, but what about other resources? How do you know whether the information you find is from a reputable source and can be trusted?

Articles published in reputable journals will have been peer-reviewed, i.e. experts in the field will have read the article before publication and confirmed that the contents are credible. This review process is typically anonymous, so that the authors cannot use their influence to get their papers published and the reviewers cannot preferentially recommend their colleagues’ papers for publication. During the peer-review process, the reviewers will look at the confidence of the data obtained and the suitability of the methods of analysis. They will also look at the conclusions to ensure they are valid, unambiguous and based on the results presented in the paper, and confirm that the paper represents new findings and is not a direct repeat of work that has already been published, either by the same author or by others.

Resources you obtain from academic databases (including those noted in Section 5.3) involve reputable journals, so you can generally rely on these as ‘credible’ sources of information. Academic books and review articles published by large publishing houses or professional bodies are also typically expected to be reliable. Very occasionally, published papers are subsequently shown to be of dubious quality, e.g. where data or information has been made up or the authors have unknowingly measured something completely different. Such occurrences are rare but, to an impartial reader, will be difficult to spot. This is where sites such as Retraction Watch [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] can help clarify issues of concern.

However, you are potentially more likely to come across dubious sources of information when searching the web. Although web resources generated by universities, professional bodies, government organisations and well-known publishing houses are usually reliable, you still need to make sure that any material you use from the web is reliable. Charitable bodies and pressure groups can be reputable, but care is needed as some (especially pressure groups) may provide biased information or views. You should also watch out for any bias in reporting, and aim to seek a balanced view by considering more than one source of information and weighing up the alternatives.