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The ability to critically evaluate information is an essential postgraduate research skill. This skill is particularly pertinent to the production of literature reviews, where a critical appraisal or analysis of the literature is required.
We recommend you use the PROMPT mnemonic (Presentation, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Provenance, Timeliness) outlined in this document to provide a structured approach to critical evaluation of information.
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.
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.
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.
Geographical: It may relate to countries or areas which you are not interested in.
Level: It may be too detailed/specialised or too general/simple for your needs.
Emphasis: It may not contain the kind of information you are seeking, which may not be identifiable from the abstract.
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.
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.
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 there are a few things you should think about.
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.
The provenance of a piece of information (i.e. who produced it, and where it came 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.
The ‘stable theory’ 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.
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.