Evaluating Information Sources: Publication Types and Bias

Tips on evaluating popular and scholarly articles, bias and propaganda in publishing, impact metrics and predatory publishing.

Publication Types and Bias

Since anyone can write and publish anything, we have articles that focus on legitimate research and reporting and we have articles filled with lies, "fake news", and propaganda. Authors of scholarly and research-oriented articles (Scholarship) seek to identify the truth as they understand it. All authors (and publications) have a Bias, some write to that bias and others try to be more balanced in their writing. When the author focuses on persuasion using bias, emotional appeals and distortion of facts, the article enters the category of Propaganda.  The University of Michigan Library offers an excellent chart on: 

Bias in the News

Use the links below to discover where your favorite news source falls on the political spectrum and the bias it may have.

How to Identify Bias

Bias is a leaning or prejudice in favor of or against one side, person, item, or group compared with another, often in an unfair manner.

Articles: Scholarly vs Popular vs Trade

   Scholarly/Academic Articles  Popular Articles  Trade Articles
 Publisher  Academic institutions, Scholarly platforms (e.g., Elsevier)  Magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs, and government agencies  Trade associations, Vendors
 Author (who writes)  Professors, researchers, experts considered scholars; credentials are generally noted and authors are generally not paid  General: Anyone: lay reporter, staff writer, free-lancer; generally paid
 Research-oriented: Expert on the topic, someone who works in or knows the field; may or may not be paid
 Staff writers, professionals,  journalists or vendors in the field; generally paid
 Audience (who reads)  Scholars, researchers and students in the field  General public  Professionals and practitioners in a specific trade, industry, or profession
 Goal/ Purpose  To share or present original research or scholarship; answer the "so what?" questions, make connections between variables/issues.  To entertain, persuade or inform; answers "who, what, where, and when" questions
 Research-oriented: To find the truth, factual reporting
 Propaganda-focused: To elicit an emotional response
 To inform and share research or experiences within a specific business or industry
 Content  Research results, reviews of research in a specific field, book reviews  Current events, general interest, reporting the findings of others  Current news, trends, and products about a specific business or industry
 Editors/ Reviewers  Journal editors and peer reviewers  Staff editors, no peer review  Staff editors, may be reviewed by business or industry professionals 
 Format/ Structure  Standardized; see: Anatomy of a Scholarly Article; may be described as refereed or peer-reviewed  Variable, includes websites, blogs, reports, and infographics  No specific format with some industry exceptions
 Citation/ References  Includes sources with footnotes, end notes, and/or in-text citations, and bibliography or list of references  Rare; may offer links within publication or to similarly-focused sources
 Research-oriented: Generally includes references, footnotes and/or links to sources
 Rare, may offer short reference lists
 Vocabulary  Complex and technical  Familiar, non-technical  Technical in the field
 Article Titles  May include the words: Journal, Review, or Annals; and/or refer to a field of study  Often general, usually catchy  Usually catchy and include technical terminology
 Graphics  Used to illustrate a point  Used for visual impact  Used to illustrate a point or for visual impact
 Ads in publication  Minimal, usually for scholarly products (e.g., books) or field-related products  Glossy photos; Ads for a variety of different products  Ads geared for the specific industry
 Examples  American Anthropologist, Annals of Psychology, Journal of Gerontology  Popular: Newsweek, Better Homes and Gardens, Time, Rolling Stone, My Blog
 Research-oriented: Washington Post, Mother Jones,  National Academies Press
 Propaganda-focused: Liberal America, National Rifle Association (NRA)
 Banker, Pharmacy Times, Professional Nurse, Interior Designer, InfoSecurity Professional

From Scholarship to Propaganda

Indicators of Scholarship vs. Indicators of Propaganda

While scholarship and objective news reporting is created with a focus on the ideal of truth, propaganda actively seeks to influence through the use of deception.  Presenting a point of view is different from deliberately using psychological techniques to shape the opinion of others.

 Indicators of Scholarship  Indicators of Propaganda
 Describes limits of data; Admits own ignorance and uncertainty; Strives for truth/facts  Excessive claims of certainty (We have "the way, the view"); Mixes both truth and falsehood
 Presents accurate descriptions of alternative views  Personal attacks and ridicule on alternative views; Identifies one point of view as the only view
 Presents data that do not favor preferred views as well as data that supports those views  Distorts or manipulates data to support preferred views
 Encourages debate, discussion, criticism, Relies on critical thinking skills  Relies on emotional appeals and suggestion (e.g., negative innuendo);
 Settles disputes by use of generally accepted criteria for evaluating data  Devalues thought and critical appraisal; suppresses contradictory views
 Looks for counter-examples  Suppresses contradictory facts, Magnifies or minimizes problems and suggested remedies; Offers ready-made answers
 Uses language in agreed-on ways  Transforms words to suit aims
 Updates information  Presents information and views out of context
 Attempts to discuss general laws and principles  Appeals to popular prejudices; deliberately misleads
 Invites continuing research  Success measured by changed attitudes/motivations

From Prof. Eileen Gambrill in Bodi, S. (1995). Scholarship or propaganda: How can librarians help undergraduates tell the difference? Journal of Academic Librarianship. 21(1):21–25. With thanks to the UMich Library.