Quality Information

The higher ed world has been focusing this week on the “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review” article/expose written by John Bohannon that used a fake paper to investigate the validity of the peer review process. There has been heated debate over the validity of his methods and conclusions, which is summarized well by Barbara Fister’s latest post “The Sting” .

One of the recurring themes I’ve been exploring in my own work is how to teach people the ethics of information use and the skills needed to determine the validity of a source. I have been listening to a lot of podcasts recently, mostly focused on healthy living, but I am open to suggestions! My go to podcast is the Rich Roll podcast. Rich Roll is a plant based ultra endurance athlete who wrote a book about his journey from an out of shape 40 year old lawyer to an ultra endurance athlete. He interviews a wide variety of people, and I have been catching up on old episodes.

One of his guests was Dr. Garth Davis, who is a plant based bariatric surgeon. His interview was fascinating because he discussed his medical school education and training, and the gaps that existed in what/how he was taught. He talked a lot about how people on the Internet argue about diet/health by using snippets of research without having the skills to actually evaluate the full spectrum of research on that issue. At one point (about 1 hour and 20 minutes into the interview) he said: “The sad thing is PubMed is online, right. So PubMed you can look up any article. So the big thing to do in these little Internet websites is to reference an article from PubMed and all you get is the abstract. And that’s what people are referencing, so no one has the first clue about how to read an article or how to analyze whether an article is realistic. For me, in the surgery world I gotta know the author to know if I believe the study. You know. And I got to sit in the meeting and question them, you know? They’re not doing any of this. They’re just like “Oh, I searched on PubMed and found this one article and I’m gonna make this argument”.

I’ve been saving this quote for a few weeks to write about because I thought it was so interesting to hear library related issues leak into my other life as a healthy, plant based, amateur athlete. I used this example in a class this week when I was talking about using citations to contribute to the scholarly conversation and build your reputation in a field. I told them about how Dr. Davis said he only believed information from a study in his field if he knew or knew of the authors. They seemed impressed by that, and I try to use real world examples like this as often as possible. I think it makes the conceptual knowledge easier to assimilate to real world contexts.

I’m more convinced than ever that we need to be teaching our users about the information landscape, and how to navigate it effectively. Bohannon’s piece makes it clear that this landscape is changing and that it will make our jobs more difficult but also more essential. As an academic librarian, an essential part of this goal is to work with faculty to understand their disciplines and to keep them abreast of these issues as they publish their own research and create student assignments that require research components.

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