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POLS 205: American Public Policy: Getting Started - Research basics

This is a guide to resources which support the study of public policy making in the American political system.

Thinking about information

Once you have an interest in a topic, it is important to consider carefully the sources of information that you are consulting and how they fit into the larger information ecosystem.  This is a quick look at that ecosystem.

The information cycle

As events happen, information is generated.  Understanding the ways information is associated with events helps to know where to look and what kinds of content you will find. For example:

 

Immediate information includes internet (social media) and real time reporting on TV and radio. Information from these sources is very current, even eyewitness, but not very thoughtful.  These accounts are called 'primary sources.'  Common examples: Twitter, Facebook, broadcast news, etc.

 

Next day or week: A newspaper account will come out in the day or two following the event, and will be more organized and slightly more complete, with a certain degree of context. A weekly magazine might contain even more background and is probably more reliable.  Examples: New York Times, Time Magazine, The Economist.

 

Within a year or two: Journals and books will publish accounts of the event and will have the benefit of time and research to add even more context, understanding, analysis and reliability to the events. Examples: Scholarly journal articles and popular books.

 

Two to three years: Scholarly books generally take a few years to go through the research, writing, editing and publishing process, but are very complete, contextual and, often, reliable.

 

Five or more years: At a certain point, encyclopedias and reference books will contain the 'accepted' historical analysis of events, though we understand that "history" can be subject to "revision."

 

(See also "Evaluating information")

Scholarly content vs. Popular content

An important distinction exists between types of publications found in libraries and online, especially in the academic environment. Your professors at the university level will want you to conduct research using "scholarly" content.  Most of what the academic library buys and subscribes to would be considered scholarly - that's a key criteria when we make selections.  But you as the information user also need to understand what constitutes scholarly content.  Here are some clues:

Scholarly                                                                                                              

  • Authors are experts
  • Articles are reviewed by other experts and considered to add knowledge to the field
  • Audience is assumed to know something about the subject
  • Sources for facts and ideas are cited 
  • Little or no advertising (nonprofit)


Popular

 

  • Authors are professional writers, but not necessarily subject experts
  • Articles are meant to sell magazines
  • Audience is the general public, and there is no assumption of prior knowledge
  • Articles do not contain citations or references
  • Lots of glossy advertising (commercial and profitmaking)
     

Evaluating information

Thinking critically about the information you are using is essential to high quality research.  A few things to consider: 

  • Is the information current?  When was it written/published?
  • Is the information authoritative?  Who is the author and what is their background and education?
  • Is the information accurate? Are there notes and references giving the sources of the data?
  • Is the information objective?  Is it partisan?  If the publisher is an agency or organization, do you know who they are and what their goals and interests are? 
  • Is the information relevant?  Does it answer the question you have?

 

Your librarian

Dan Gjelten