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COVID-19: Avoiding Misinformation and Conducting Credible Research

This guide intends to offer a bit of guidance on where to look for credible information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how to avoid misinformation where possible.

Evaluating Your Search Results to Improve the Research Process

A researcher may begin their process with a bit of brainstorming, mapping out keywords or jargon they have encountered in preliminary browsing, or even encountered in personal conversations. Whatever baseline understanding one has (if any at all) of a given topic, a good researcher will continue the process with the expectation that they will be introduced to new words, ideologies, methodologies, and interpretations of information that do not align with some or all of their own biases or notions, and that is ok! With COVID-19, the choice in search terms in conjunction with a particular resource will have major implications on the types of data discoverable throughout the process. 

As suggested by the ACRL's Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, the search process goes well beyond selecting a few keywords, plugging into a search bar, then seeing what happens. As indicated in the following tenet, there is a thoughtful strategy required:

Searching as Strategic Exploration

Searching for information is often nonlinear and iterative, requiring the evaluation of a range of information sources and the mental flexibility to pursue alternate avenues as new understanding develops.

The act of searching often begins with a question that directs the act of finding needed information. Encompassing inquiry, discovery, and serendipity, searching identifies both possible relevant sources as well as the means to access those sources. Experts realize that information searching is a contextualized, complex experience that affects, and is affected by, the cognitive, affective, and social dimensions of the searcher. Novice learners may search a limited set of resources, while experts may search more broadly and deeply to determine the most appropriate information within the project scope. Likewise, novice learners tend to use few search strategies, while experts select from various search strategies, depending on the sources, scope, and context of the information need.

So, a major takeaway here concerns scope, as well as the notions of efficiency and the integrity of the search itself. Searching on coronavirus in a Google search, for example, will certainly yield several results, and due to the currency of the pandemic, many may be relevant as well. Since we have a verifiable name for this disease and virus, as established by credible groups like the W.H.O. or CDC, a better search might be to combine the terms in a useful way. As a rule of thumb, you want to evaluate five major categories wen determining the potential value of a resource to your research process:

  • Currency: How current is the resource publication date to the topic at hand? (Is this an article written during a former pandemic? Is the information within still able to prove useful in your research? Take care that you are not using outdated, but otherwise correct, information incorrectly.)
  • Relevancy: is the information you are reading actually closely connected to your research, or is it not really addressing your issue. (This is a key area in COVID-19 research, to spend a bit of extra time evaluating a source's presentation of data/correlations drawn. Is data verifiably correct, but also being leveraged to make an unrelated point? Fact check the numbers and the conclusions drawn from them.)
  • Accuracy: Fact check, look for citations, and question vague statistics that do not clearly indicate how the data was gathered, or even unclear as to methodologies used in scientific studies (what demographic? how many were tested in this study? Etc.)
  • Authority: Look at the authors of the piece. What are their credentials/degrees? Does that matter in this case? Where did they get said degree or where did they gain professional experience and credibility? Who published it? Who is hosting...or better yet, who is PAYING for this website/periodical? Verify the authority granted to the producers of the information you encounter. Once you cite them, their credibility is your credibility.
  • Purpose: Is the information written with heavy technical jargon, perhaps with a layout indicative of a very scientific paper? Perhaps it's written by and for academic use, to inform and open new doors of research. Is the piece written in a more conversational manner, credible but written in a way to appeal to the uninitiated in a given discipline? Is the headline using language with a verifiable history of use in a negative or hurtful way toward groups or individuals? Not everything has to be an academic paper, but an intent to be credible and educate others without being intentionally misleading or insensitive is a standard all can be held accountable to.

Research is a reflective process, a cycle rather than a singular activity. This is why keeping notes on the search terms and strings one uses is so valuable, whether they were "successful" or not. Execute a search, then consider the results. Reflect on the process itself as well as the data retrieved. Did your terms yield mostly academic sources? Was that a product of he search terms, the resources itself (Google, a database, etc.), or some combination? Reflect on how the search terms may be influencing your experience, and begin to synthesize these observations into your process. Search, evaluate the sources, reflect on what you are seeing/how you got there, as well as on how you might be able to adjust your approach moving forward. This is where Boolean searching can be handy.