Explaining Authority

One thing I have found difficult in my librarian-instructor capacity is how to impress students with the idea that some sources of information are better than others. We are all comfortable with the concept that value is subjective. But does this apply to information? (My own answer varies depending on what day it is.)

Of students I have interacted with, I have met some who have not thought about source authority at all, and some who suspect there is a good source for the information they need but do not know how to find or identify it (because they have never before been expected to justify their sources?). Perhaps of the students I do not interact with, 100 percent are fully competent when it comes to finding and using information. It is possible that the majority of college students have a perfect grasp of information and how it is generated and used. Most of the students I work with at the library, however, do not.

In any case, I do not want to be heavy-handed and say “X sources are good but Y sources are bad,” first because even I do not think it is so black and white (see recent Elsevier story & the story about cancer research), and second because I do not think students will accept that message. That is the old librarian-as-gatekeeper, top-down mentality, which is no longer realistic. So I have been envisioning a fancy presentation containing the various examples I have been collecting of how you would look foolish if you relied on sources such as wikipedia for all your information. Unfortunately I have not gotten around to creating it yet, and such a thing would go out of date so fast that I am not convinced it would be worth the effort. (Although I did link to Colbert’s wikiality speech on one of our LibGuides.) Besides, when am I, the librarian, given classroom time to do something like that?

So I do not really know what to do, except briefly repeat the same old message about how it is generally a good thing to use sources from the college’s library, about how these are the sources instructors expect students to use, and unless I am questioned not be too specific about if and why they are ‘better.’ I am not so far down the libraryland rabbit hole that I imagine I will get a round of applause if I say “You should use the library because the library is on your side. The college library wants to provide you with high quality sources for your research. Our agenda is clearly stated. We do our best to provide an additional level of editorial process by reading reviews and making informed decisions for what should be added to the collection, and beyond that we are trying to make as much of it as possible accessible from home.”

Big fricking woop. Now I’ll go back to answering questions about how to cite web sites.

13 thoughts on “Explaining Authority”

  1. I’d suggest that authority is contextual–library databases are a good source for some kinds of information, less good for others. I’m way more likely to find what I’m looking for on Wikipedia if what I want is a detailed episode-by-episode explication of the mysteries of Lost. And if my professor requires me to include two articles from peer-reviewed journals for a research paper that counts for half my grade, library databases are by far the better bet.

    I’d like us to get away from thinking of authority as determinable once-and-for-all and in all situations. We all know intuitively that this isn’t the case, and when we try to convince students otherwise, of course they think we’re foolish. My best strategy for snapping students to attention around authority issues is to ask them a) what information sources are you required to use to pass this class and b) have you found them yet through Google? The answer is usually a good segue into looking at library databases.

    (I also find the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entries about ‘race’ a good exercise for myself in how even the sources we’re most accustomed to thinking of as authoritative–Britannica!!–are historically, culturally, contextually contingent.)

  2. Why not try an activity in your instruction sessions? Maybe you could decontextualize them a little – maybe just paste the text from various types of articles – and have small groups of the students decide which ones are more authentic or reliable than others?

  3. Perhaps a prior notion needs to be established first – different sources can disagree on a proposition. If all sources say the same thing, just trust the first one that’s found. If they can differ, however, then which to trust is a challenge. How does that challenge get resolved?

  4. Authority should not be viewed as an either/or binary concept, since (as the posting and Emily both point out) even sources with a verifiable pedigree, such as a “scholarly” Elsevier journal, should not be taken for granted. In my research sessions, I attempt to stress that all information is suspect and that values like authority should be evaluated as just one factor along with currency, relevance, usability, etc.

    Furthermore, in my experience, it seems that the current thinking in LIS is that websites freely available online are inherently inferior because the editorial process is assumed not to be as evident or rigorous as with print media. I’m beginning to question that assumption, since there are numerous egregious examples of misinformation spread via print.

    So, its pretty clear that the either/or construct doesn’t work. But perhaps this issue of evaluating authority transcends even a linear continuum (i.e. “authoritative” to “non-authoritative”), and requires a weighted, multidimensional approach taking many additional factors (currency, usability, relevance, purpose, etc) into account.

  5. I’ve recently tried something in classes that seems to work. I use the term credibility instead of authority and then I ask them why they believe what I say, how do they know whether or not to believe a friend and what would make them believe something said by a stranger. They usually say that it’s because I’m paid by the college which leads us to a discussion of qualifications and then we move on to trust and verification and how information is presented, etc. I then go on to evaluate printed information and web sources according to the criteria they come up with. It’s really interesting to see their reaction and depending on the group, the discussion can be pretty lively.

  6. Great discussion!

    Ameet mentions usability as a factor in evaluating an article. What I see as a big stumbling block for students is when authority and usability clash: an article is authoritative (peer-reviewed), but practically unusable, from a student’s perspective, because the article is written for an audience of experts and is frustratingly arcane.

    That’s one reason why students gravitate toward less authoritative sources, like Wikipedia, which are written for a general audience and are therefore more usable.

  7. Re: Laura H.’s comment about an activity, most of the instruction sessions I do revolve around specific assignments for classes, and so there’s already an activity built in: Find sources for the assignment. Having said that, I did a much less structured lesson for a journalism class recently, incorporating Pat’s suggestion about credibility. Not sure if it sunk in, but I *hoped* future journalists would be motivated to think carefully about their sources, if only because those sources ultimately reflect on them and their professional reputations.

  8. I think authority relates primarily to the source’s knowledge base. This is why a research article in a peer-reviewed journal has more authority then an article in a popular magazine. The author of the former has collected (and, we hope, read) previous works on the topic to inform himself and his opinions/hypotheses, and he has gone through the vetting process of having his article approved for publication by a number of other knowledgeable (again, we hope) scholars. His reputation as one of authority relates to his accumulated knowledge, as well as the knowledge of those willing to vouch for him. The reporter in a popular magazine, in the other hand, can only relay the information provided to him by his sources (which could be one or several people), and so the authority of that article can only be as strong as the knowledge of the people providing the information. (This is also why we might give more credit to a NY Times article than one from a small-town newspaper, because the NYT has greater access to those with more knowledge, presumably.)
    It’s kind of like this. If I was going to choose a contractor, I would ask friends who have had work done on their house, because they have more knowledge of that area than my renting buddies who have not run into this issue, thereby giving my home-remodeling friends more authority. (This is probably also why Mom & Dad seem wiser as we get older!)
    In conclusion, knowledge = authority. 🙂

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