8 Evaluating reported information
Contemporary science is reported through a variety of media and genres, such as newspapers, scientific articles, formal written reports, to online and/or social media content. The chosen communication method (or methods) depends, in part, on the perceived reader, and whether the intended purpose of the communication is to inform the public, other scientists or a specific group of stakeholders, such as a government minister or an industrial sector.
In this section you will consider some examples of reports, scientific articles and websites, and look at methods of analysing their content. Scientific articles are time consuming, both to read and to understand every aspect, so you will often find it helpful to consider using reading techniques such as scanning text and speed reading.
Box 1 Skimming an article
You are probably already used to ‘skim reading’ when you read news stories in print or online. This is often the first, intuitive step in deciding whether or not to read a particular story (or review, blog, etc.).
When you skim a piece of writing, you read quickly to get an overview before you start to read in depth. Although you may still need to read the entire text, you can decide where you want to concentrate your time.
Skimming the text quickly involves:
- getting an indication of the scope and content of the information
- looking at the first sentence of each paragraph to see what it’s about
- noting the key points in any summaries.
These approaches are equally applicable when trying to gain an impression of a piece of academic writing. Here, you may wish to focus on components such as the headings used, as well as any images and tables (and their captions).
With practice, you can become more adept at quickly scanning through material to get a sense of both the facts being presented and also which parts of the report or article are the most relevant to the information you are hoping to obtain. These are vital study skills.
Practices like summarising information and producing glossary lists can also help to build your understanding, particularly when faced with complex subjects. Such activities should take place after an initial skim of the material, though, as your first quick read through will help you to decide whether the material is both useful for your purposes and suitably reliable. This latter idea is explored further in the next section.