Monday, April 26, 2010

Evaluating Information using a Rat TRAP

There are two major reasons why you have to evaluate every information resource:
  1. People make mistakes, including authors, publishers, and librarians, so nothing is 100% reliable, even scholarly sources from Library databases.
  2. Things can look more reliable than they are, especially now that anybody can put together a professional-looking website with very little time, skill, or money.
Evaluating information, whether on the web or in print, is done on the basis of four factors. There's a mnemonic to remember them: "TRAP the rats (bad information sources.)"

T - Timeliness
  • Is the information out of date?
  • What constitutes "out of date" varies by subject and discipline. In the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, you want the most recent information available. A year old might be too old. In the humanities and social sciences, it really depends.
R - Reliability
  • Peer review uses a network of subject experts to ensure quality control of scholarly articles.
  • Academic publishers hire editors that are subject experts to do the same thing.
A - Authority
  • Does the author have the expertise and experience to know what they are talking about?
  • What are their credentials and institutional affiliations?
P - Purpose
  • What was the author's intention in creating this information source? To inform or educate? To entertain? To persuade? Even to misinform or propagandize?
  • There are myriad sources of bias (a point of view that acts as a filter and blindspot.) Can you detect the author's biases?
  • What possible conflicts of interest might the author have?

Empire State College Library Research Blog

Questions? Ask a Librarian

Monday, April 19, 2010

Earth Day Resources

Earth Day is April 22. It was established in 1969, although the first one took place in March. The following year, Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin promoted a massive teach-in about the environment for April 22, 1970, and Earth Day has fallen on that date every year since. The 1970 Earth Day was the force that prompted the US Congress to pass the Clean Air Act and establish the Environmental Protection Agency. Earth Day is the most widely celebrated purely secular holiday on Earth.

Some Library resources about the environment and ecology:

Empire State College Library Research Blog

Questions? Ask a Librarian

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What is plagiarism and how to avoid it?

Academic Integrity is a huge topic. The Empire State College Academic Integrity website has a great deal of information about it, including expectations for students and the consequences for violating academic integrity.

What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is using someone else's original work and misrepresenting it as your own. It can mean using their words or only their ideas (paraphrasing.) Even if you cite the original work, it can still be plagiarism. And obviously if you copy entire paragraphs or even more from someone else's work, it is a serious case of plagiarism!

How can it be that you can cite your source and still be plagiarizing? Citing your sources is to let your reader track your information back to its source and to give credit where it's due, but it is not an excuse for substituting someone else's ideas or words for your own! Obviously you will have to build your ideas upon the ideas of others, and that is where you cite. But if your paper merely jumps from one borrowed idea to another, and doesn't revolve around your own original thought, then it is a waste of time. That kind of reporting is acceptable as a learning exercise, but it is not what college faculty intend when they assign a research or term paper.

As for quoting, you should keep it to a minimum. Think of it as a convenience for a reader. Sometimes you want to point out that a person who is a leader in their field has said something that supports your point. Other times, someone else has said something so perfectly that any other way you phrased it would be inadequate. Those are the times to quote and cite - when you want your reader to experience the original wording without having to go look it up for themselves. The rest of the time, you should paraphrase (and cite.)

You can also plagiarize yourself. If you reuse an old paper for a new class without explicit permission from your instructor, it is a violation of academic integrity because the assumption is you will be researching and writing something new as a learning experience that makes the course you are taking valuable, and as a way of accurately representing your current knowledge, skills, and dedication.

Empire State College faculty make use of a plagiarism detection tool called This allows them to submit a student's paper (in a way that protects both copyright and privacy) to a database that then tries to match it with content from the Internet, paper mills, reference resources, and more. If there is a text match, the professor is shown where it comes from and can begin to talk to the student about academic integrity and consequences.

We are aware that students rarely commit plagiarism intentionally, and that when they do, it is often an act of desperation. If you are having academic difficulty, there are resources for you to turn to:
Questions? Ask a Librarian

Monday, April 5, 2010

Library databases for primary sources

When doing research in the humanities and social sciences, particularly in history, you may be required to use primary sources.

Primary sources can be either first-hand accounts of an event or "byproducts" of that event. A letter to a friend in which the writer reviews a play she saw would be a first-hand account. The script, director's notes, costume and set designers' drawings, and the playbill from that play would be a "byproduct." All are primary sources. They are important because they get you as close to the original event as possible, with minimal interpretation and analysis from other people.

Secondary sources (including your research paper) use and are based on primary sources.

The Empire State College Library has a number of databases that contain primary sources.
Most of them will require you to enter your college login and password.
Questions? Ask a Librarian