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What is Authority?

When we speak about authority in the context of information literacy and research, we are talking about cognitive authority, which is how we decide whose voices to trust in research. This is different from political authority, which describes power dynamics (such as the authority of the government to pass and enforce laws on citizens).

Authority is contextual. Different types of authority are valued in different contexts. If you're trying to choose a restaurant to eat at on vacation, you might trust the authority of reviews on a site like Yelp over that of a highly respected food scientist who has never visited the restaurant in question. If you're writing a research paper on student activists in the 1960s, you might trust the authority of someone who was a student activist, even if they don't have any scholarly credentials; but you'd also probably trust a historian who has published frequently and deemed influential by other scholars in the field, even if they were never a student activist. The point is that different people have different sorts of authority, and someone who has a lot of authority in one context may have very little in another context. 

Authority is constructed. Different communities, fields, and disciplines have different conceptions of what makes a person an authority on something. Academic researchers studying the effects of sugar on human health will probably trust research from other academic researchers more than they'd trust research produced by a sugar industry group. It is important to read varying perspectives and carefully consider the authority of each. Sometimes the most prominent voices are not the most authoritative.

SIFT Your Sources

When researching online, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available and simply use the first few pages that superficially seem official and relevant. However, with these simple tips, you can SIFT through the sources you find to determine which ones really are best, regardless of what PageRank, social media likes, or anyone else says.

SIFT is a helpful acronym for initially evaluating source credibility. SIFT stands for:

  • STOP. Pause.
    Ask yourself if you recognize the information source and if you know anything about the website or the claim's reputation.
    If not, use the moves below to learn more. 
  • INVESTIGATE the source.
    Take a minute to identify where this information comes from and to consider the creator's expertise and agenda. This identification and evaluation process is called Lateral Reading and is a key component of being a savvy information consumer. 
    Is this source worth your time? Don't simply take what the site says about itself at face value. Try Googling the author, organization, or website to see what others are saying about it.
    (For example, a company that sells health food products is not the best source for information about health benefits/risks of consuming coconut oil. A research study funded by a pharmaceutical company is also suspect.)
  • FIND trusted coverage.
    Sometimes it's less important to know about the source and more importance to assess their claim. Look for credible sources; compare information across sources and determine whether there appears to be a consensus.
  • TRACE claims, quotes, and media back to the original context.
    Sometimes online information has been removed from its original context (for example, a news story is reported on in another online publication or an image is shared on Twitter). If needed trace the information back to the original source in order to recontextualize it. 

Modified from Mike Caulfield's SIFT (Four Moves) and Rowan University's Evaluating Online Sources LibGuide

Later, when you determine that the site is worth your time, you can analyze the source's content more carefully.