Critical Evaluation

The ability to critically evaluate information is an essential skill for postgraduate researchers. This skill is particularly pertinent to the production of literature reviews, where a critical appraisal or analysis of the literature is required.

In this section, we suggest using 'PROMPT', a structured approach to critical evaluation of information (Provenance, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Presentation, Timeliness).

Provenance

The provenance of a piece of information (i.e. who produced it? Where did it come from?) may provide a useful clue to its reliability. It represents the ‘credentials’ of a piece of information that support its status and perceived value. It is, therefore, very important to be able to identify the author, sponsoring body or source of your information.

Factors to consider about authors:

Factors to consider about sponsoring organisations:

Factors to consider about the method of publication:

The provenance of a piece of information is not a direct clue to its quality. There is something called the ‘stable theory’, which suggests that academic work is often valued highly just because it emanates from a prestigious research group or is published in a prestigious journal. So we should judge information on its own merits. However, provenance can be an indirect clue to the reliability of information – a safety net that gives you the opportunity to check things out. Provenance can affect other people’s confidence in the sources you are citing.

Relevance

Relevance is an important aspect of information quality. It is not a property of the information itself, but rather of its relationship to the need you have identified. It may be a piece of high quality information but not relevant to the question you are asking or the scope of your search. There are a number of ways in which the information may or may not be relevant to your needs.

A tip for determining relevance is to

Objectivity

In an ideal world, ‘objective’ or ‘balanced’ information would present all the evidence and all the arguments, and leave you to weigh this up and draw conclusions. In the real world, however, we recognise that all information is presented from a position of interest, although this may not necessarily be intentional. Objectivity, therefore, may be an unachievable ideal.

This means that the onus is on you, the reader, to develop a critical awareness of the positions represented in what you read, and to take account of this when you interpret the information. It is also important to recognise that your own belief systems and opinions will influence your ability to be dispassionate and objectively evaluate information.

In some cases, authors may be explicitly expressing a particular viewpoint – this is perfectly valid as long as they are explicit about the perspective they represent. Hidden bias or errors of omission, whether or not it is deliberate, can be misleading. Consider the following:

When producing a literature review there is a particular onus on you to recognise any selective interpretation of data. You will need to comment on any significant omissions or biases that you may encounter in other people’s findings.

Method

For this aspect of PROMPT we do not refer to the evaluation of research methods per se, but to the information produced as a result of using particular methods. With your knowledge of the methods used in your subject area think about the following.

Do not assume that because a research report has been accepted for publication, it is error-free and meets a certain standard. There have been cases of fraudulent research that have successfully fooled the research establishment and been published in high profile journals.

Presentation

The way in which information is presented has a profound effect on the way we receive and perceive it. There are many aspects of presentation, any of which, if badly applied, can create a barrier between the message and the audience.

For example:

Be aware that poor presentation and inappropriate or confusing use of language will hinder your ability to critically evaluate the academic content. Try not to let poor presentation stop you from using what might otherwise be good quality, relevant information.

Timeliness

The date when information was produced or published can be an important aspect of quality. This is not quite as simple as saying that ‘good’ information has to be up to date; it depends on your information need.

Factors to consider include:

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