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ENGL 1130: Define Information Need


With the many sources of information we have available to us, we often find ourselves with too much information! We need some way to sort through it all. We need to know what sort of questions to ask to determine whether the information available will adequately answer our questions. At each stage of your research, different questions need to be asked. Some guidelines are given here.

Defining Your Information Need

Before you start searching, it is best if you can define your information need. If you know what you're looking for, you'll be better able to recognize it when you've found your answer. Also, defining your information need helps you know where to start looking.

  • What information do you need? Define your problem or interpret your assignment.
  • What information do you already have on the subject? What facts or background information do you already know?
  • Do you want general or specific information about the subject?
  • How much information do you want? A single fact? A paragraph? A few pages? An entire book?
  • What types of information do you want? For example, are you looking for
    • opinions
    • statistics or data
    • case studies or specific examples
    • name of experts
    • historical information
    • analysis
  • What information sources (databases, library catalogs, encyclopedias, the Internet) will help you find the information you need? A reference librarian can help with this part!

Evaluate the Source of Information

Some questions can be answered while you are looking at your search results in a database or search engines. Know the content of the databases, read abstracts (if available), do author searches, look at subject headings, and notice publication information (for dates, places, and publishers). Other questions will be answered when you are looking at the publication itself or at the full-text in a database.

  • Who is the author of the information, and what qualifications to they have on this topic? What is their relevant education, experience, occupation, or other publications?
  • Who is the intended audience?  Is it for the general public, for students, for professionals or other researchers, etc.?
  • What type of source is it? Is it scholarly, popular, commercial, governmental, or private? Is the presentation suitable for your level of understanding of the subject (not too simple or too difficult)?
  • When was the information produced? Is your topic one that is likely to have had significant changes since the source was published? Do you need current information or a historical perspective?
  • Where was the information published? Does it focus on a specific part of the world or region?
  • Why was the information published? Does the source show political or cultural bias?
  • How is the information organized? Are there appendixes, indexes, and/or a bibliography included? Does it have graphs, charts, glossaries, or illustrations to help explain or augment the information?

Evaluate the Information Content Itself

Finally, after you have read through a book, an article, or other publication, you should be able to answer questions about the type and quality of information that it gives.

  • Does the source contain the information you need? (See Defining your Information Need)
  • Does it report primary research (e.g. experiments, observations, surveys) or is it a compilation of previous research, like a review article or meta-analysis? Is there documentation of other works used (bibliography, footnotes, references, etc.)?
  • What is the author's thesis? What are the main points or concepts?
  • What facts or opinions are presented? Is more than one point of view presented? What are the major findings or conclusions, and are they supported by the facts or arguments?
  • Do other sources support the facts and/or conclusions of this source? Do the findings support or refute your own ideas on the topic?

Evaluating Internet Sources

The Internet's potential for assistance in research is limitless, but it is important to remember that anyone can put up a web page, and there is no 'quality control' or editor for what you might find. This means that you must be the quality control inspector of your own results. It is important to always be ready to evaluate a website's reliability, especially if you are looking to use them in your research.

Some things you might consider when searching online include:

  • Currency
    • When was the website last updated?
    • Is it updated periodically or frequently?
    • How old are the sources they are using?
  • Relevance
    • Is the website important to your argument/discussion?
    • Are they up to date with new breakthroughs or arguments?
    • What is the purpose of the site? To sell something? To inform? To advertise?
    • Is their information biased?
      • Is the webpage telling you something that would be beneficial for their agenda, product, or purpose?
  • Accuracy
    • Is the content of this website accurate?
    • Are they fact-checking their pages?
    • Do they list sources for their information?
    • Are there spelling mistakes, typos, or grammatical errors?
    • Do they make outrageous claims or emotional appeals?
  • Authority
    • Who is publishing this website?
    • Who is contributing to this website? (scholars, the public, politicians)
    • Is it a large corporation, the government, a university, or your next-door neighbor?
    • Are they qualified to speak as an authority in the area?
    • Does the website and information provided generate monetary profits for its creator?

For more information and other great tips check out these checklists and other resources that will help you ask the right questions.