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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.

Authority is Constructed and Contextual


ACRL Board. “Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education.” Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), 2016.

Metcalf, Emily. "Frame of the Day: Authority is Constructed and Contextual." Library Blog, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, 2019.

Pitts, Joelle. "Question Authority." New Literacies Alliance CC, 2016.