Being selective (using RABT)
Researching an assignment
Much of the information you find during your literature search may not be relevant or it could be of poor quality. You need to make judgements about which material to use as a suitable source and which to exclude.
Swiftly evaluating a source
When evaluating an academic source, read its abstract (summary) if there is one. Note its authors. Are they affiliated to well-recognised institutions? View the publication’s reference list, if provided. Are the listed references of high quality? In some cases you may be able to quickly judge whether the source is relevant, authoritative and worthy of further reading.
The mnemonic (memory aid) RABT is a prompt for the four features that are likely to characterise a good source for your task:
✵Balanced or biased?
Let us consider each of these elements in turn:
In judging the suitability of material for your task, key questions to ask are:
✵Is the material relevant to my assignment?
✵Does it focus on the issues that are part of my task?
✵For example, does the material relate to an appropriate group of people or a suitable geographic location?
✵Is it a broad overview or does it focus on only part of my task?
In the case of the introductory assignment ’Mobile phones: are they bad for your health?’ let us assume that the tutor has asked you to exclude the effects of mobile phones on children, and asked you to consider only adults. In my Google search, three of the ten website entries on the first page of results concentrated on the effect of mobiles on children. For this task, these three can therefore be excluded.
You are in your first year at university and you are asked to write an essay entitled ’Is the Antarctic (South polar) ice sheet retreating?’ Decide whether each of the sources below is:
1Relevant but aimed at too low a level for university use (although it may be appropriate for gaining an overview when you are starting research on the topic)
2Not geographically relevant
3Probably too specialised and technical
4Relevant, recent and probably aimed at an appropriate scholarly level
Enter 1, 2, 3 or 4 alongside each of the following:
(a)A recent, peer-reviewed article on fluctuations in area of the North polar ice sheet.
(b)A recent article titled ’Disappearing Antarctic Ice’, written by a scientific institute and aimed at school pupils aged 14-16.
(c)A recent review article in a leading scientific journal, focusing on the decreasing area of Antarctic summer sea ice.
(d)An up-to-date technical article on improving the equipment used for measuring the thickness of sheet ice.
Check your answers at the end of the chapter.
’Authoritative’ means that what you are reading comes from a reputable source. It carries authority. In judging material for your task, questions to ask include:
✵Are the authors from an organisation that is well recognised?
✵Do the authors have credibility in their field?
✵Does the publication give its sources of information?
A reputable website, such as one for an academic institution or professional organisation, will give organisational addresses and contact information on its webpages. A reputable website for an individual should give information about that person; for example, their qualifications and experience, and any organisations with which they are affiliated.
Published or unpublished material of potential academic importance that does not come with bibliographic information, such as an ISBN (international standard book number) or ISSN (international standard serial number), is called grey literature. Such material includes technical reports from government agencies or research groups, patents, newspaper articles and editorials, personal letters and diaries, and even trade catalogues. Because such material may be difficult to catalogue and archive, it can be challenging to find. OpenGrey, the official System for Information on Grey Literature in Europe (www.opengrey.eu/), holds bibliographical references for more than 700,000 paper sources of grey literature. In recent years, grey literature is increasingly published online and has therefore become easier to find.
Grey literature is of importance in many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, because ’unofficial’ or ’less official’ sources of information can be artefacts, serving as significant items of evidence for analysis. Some grey literature reveals the latest developments in a field, before more official communications are published, and so is of interest in scientific and technological disciplines as well.
Returning to the initial research findings for ’Mobile phones: are they bad for your health?’, websites for the UK’s National Health Service and the US National Cancer Institute can be regarded as authoritative. On both these sites you can find more information about who is responsible for the content and you can see what their editorial policy is or judge what it might be. The UK NetDoctor link was to an article published in 2010 (so, quite dated). Also, that website carries heavy advertising for a wide variety of health products, has links to other websites of dubious quality, and does not clearly state its editorial policy. I would reject this website as a source of up-to-date, authoritative information.
The extent to which you might rely on sources of variable quality would depend on the exact nature of the task. If you were criticising information given to the general public about the use of mobile phones, you might want to include the NetDoctor article but critique it. In your first year of undergraduate study you might be less critical about sources, but by the second and third years you should be subjecting them to detailed scrutiny, and rejecting them or criticising their content. Wikipedia is not an authoritative source of information, but it does have its uses.
If and when to use Wikipedia
Using the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia is problematic. You cannot easily judge the reliability of a
Wikipedia article unless you already have in-depth knowledge of that topic. A Wikipedia article might give a useful overview at the beginning of a literature search, but you cannot be confident about the article’s accuracy. A Wikipedia article might help you decide which search terms to use to find out more about a topic. Also, the sources to which a Wikipedia article refers could be sought, and provide useful information, but you still need to judge their reliability. As a general rule, do not cite Wikipedia articles but find more authoritative sources.
The most authoritative sources are written by experts and peer-reviewed by other experts. ’Peer- reviewed’ means that the item has been scrutinised, normally by at least two independent checkers, who have passed it as of suitable quality, often after appropriate changes have been made.
Publications that are peer-reviewed include academic journals, the websites and published reports of professional institutions, and some academic books. High-status academic journals list the status and affiliation of their editors, and their peer-review policy is normally given in a section called ’guidelines for authors’ or similar. A book’s title page or acknowledgements section normally reveals who has checked the author’s work.
You are asked to write a 1,500-word assignment on the benefits and potential dangers of genetically- modified (GM) crops. Which sources of information below are likely to be appropriate (A), in terms of being authoritative for use as a source for the essay? Which are likely to be inappropriate (I)?
Indicate with an A or I as appropriate.
(a)a Wikipedia article on GM crops
(b)a review article on GM crops by the Royal Society (the UK’s national academy of science)
(c)a recent article on GM crops published in the academic journal Nature
(d)a blog campaigning against the spread of GM crops, signed by someone called ’antiJim’.
Check your answer at the end of the chapter.
Balanced or biased?
Is the material you have found balanced (in that it seeks to represent many sides of an argument) or is it biased (putting forward only particular points of view)? Key questions to ask are:
✵Does the author or publisher hold a particular view on the subject?
✵Is the publication sponsored by a person or organisation that takes a particular stance?
✵Why was the publication produced?
Authors may have a complex mix of motives for being published, such as: their passion for writing, their compulsion to be read by others, their curiosity about a topic, their wish to promote a particular view, or simply, economic survival. If it is a commercial writer, they are probably writing for their daily living. If it is an academic writer, they may have a longer-term view. Academic researchers are
influenced by the need to publish in prestigious academic journals in order to secure further funding for their work. The writer’s institution, and their publisher, will also have agendas that might influence the nature of the work published.
Judging whether, and to what extent, a publication source is biased is part of assessing its suitability for your task. In order to present a balanced view of your topic, you may decide to refer to publications produced by campaigning organisations (both for and against) as well as academic or official publications. If you choose to promote one side of the argument, at the expense of the other, you would need to justify that decision.
Biased or balanced?
Imagine you were asked to write the essay ’The effect of sunlight on the skin. How much is enough?’ This is a question with a potentially complex answer.
Sunlight can have positive effects (e.g. promoting vitamin D synthesis in the skin or raising a person’s psychological mood) and potentially harmful ones (e.g. triggering skin cancer). People from different ethnic backgrounds have skin with different sensitivities to sunlight, and the pattern of solar radiation (intensity, hours of daylight per day, and so on) varies across the world.
Putting aside such matters, of the sources of information below, which is likely to favour a positive view (P) of the value of sunlight, a negative view (N), or a balanced view (B)? Indicate with a P, N or B as appropriate.
(a)the website for a manufacturer of suntanning beds
(b)the collection of related articles published on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC’s) news, nature and science webpages
(c)a consumer website for those who have recovered from surgery for skin cancer
(d)the website for a ’healthy lifestyle’ magazine.
Check your answers at the end of the chapter.
Key questions to ask about the material you find:
✵How up to date is the publication?
✵Have developments since publication meant that the findings and conclusions are now out of date?
Information and ideas can quickly become outdated. Many fields of research - including communications and the media, energy-related engineering, medicine and international finance - are fast moving. For a given assignment you need to judge whether a source is sufficiently up to date as to still be current and appropriate for your task.
For example, international concerns about human pandemics (disease epidemics that are geographically widespread) have shifted markedly in the last decade or so. In 2003, outbreaks of the
SARS virus (responsible for fatal human respiratory infections) and the avian flu virus were international causes of concern. The swine flu virus came to the fore in 2008. Publications that are only a few years old may give levels of risk for different kinds of disease that have changed significantly since. In the case of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) caused by HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus), the likelihood of contracting the disease and the long-term survival rate of those affected have shifted dramatically since the late 1980s and continue to do so.
For an assignment, your tutor may list sources that are several years old, in the knowledge that the more diligent students will use these sources to track down more recent ones. This can be done using Google Scholar, or bibliographic databases such as Web of Science, to find recent sources that cite earlier ones that the student has identified (see Chapter 11).
Primary or secondary source?
In most disciplines, a ’primary source’ (part of the primary literature) refers to a publication in which original information or ideas are first communicated. The commonest primary sources are research papers in peer-reviewed academic journals and conference papers. A ’secondary source’ (part of the secondary literature) is a publication that reports on, summarises, or otherwise reviews one or more primary sources. A review article or a chapter in an academic book are typical secondary sources. They might refer to both primary and secondary sources, which are cited and referenced. As you progress through your degree, you are likely to spend more time reading primary sources and less time reading secondary sources.
The use of the terms primary and secondary literature sources should not be confused with primary or secondary sources of evidence, as referred to in some disciplines, such as history or archaeology. In such instances, a primary source of evidence is an artefact or document. An example of an artefact would be an unearthed human bone that, on chemical analysis, reveals information about the diet of the person from which it came. An original signed copy of the American Declaration of Independence would be another primary source. Secondary sources of evidence are then documents that refer to aspects of the primary sources of evidence. If a staff member refers to a primary or secondary source, make sure in what sense it is being used. Is it a primary or secondary source of literature or a primary or secondary source of evidence?
President Obama and the US economy. Relevant and timely?
Imagine you have found an authoritative article in a national US newspaper from January 2013, in which President Obama’s administration’s handling of the US economy is reviewed for the president’s first term (January 2009 to January 2013). Other factors aside, would you consider this article to be ’timely’ (Y, yes; N, no) for each of the following assignments?
(a)An essay comparing and contrasting the economic success of US presidents since 1989.
(b)An essay about President Obama’s handling of the US economy (2009-2013), in comparison with the second term (2005-2009) of the previous president, George Bush II.
(c)An essay reviewing the successes and failures of President Obama’s two administrations.
Check your answers at the end of the chapter.
In conclusion, by using RABT (Relevant? Authoritative? Balanced? Timely?) you can check that a source is relevant and of appropriate quality for your task. Such sources will also shape your further research.