What is the “information creation process,” and what does it have to do with scholarly research? Short answer: a lot.

Longer answer (if you’re still with me!): In a previous post, I wrote about the first of the threshold concepts developed by the Association of College & Research Libraries’ (ACRL) in its “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” Threshold concepts are key points that an information-literate student or researcher needs to be able to grasp and utilize. The ACRL’s first threshold concept, “authority is constructed and contextual,” seemed tailor made for a political moment rife with discussions and anxieties about fake news, post truth and alternative facts, and indeed we librarians engaged in several robust discussions with faculty about how to approach this topic in the curriculum.

At first glance, the second threshold concept, “Information creation as a process,” might not resonate quite as strongly. But perhaps it should. Because an understanding of the process of how information is created is necessary for discerning how various books, articles, etc., might be useful or not useful — or for figuring out how authoritative they might be.

First, what does that mean, “information creation as a process”? Information objects — resources that are in various containers, including books, newspaper articles, scholarly journal articles, magazine articles, websites, blog posts, tweets, scholarly proceedings and yes, Facebook posts of dubious origin — all are informed by, and in turn inform, other information objects. In other words, the information contained in these various objects is used to create other objects; in turn, as these objects are read and shared, they may themselves serve to generate tweets, news articles, scholarly articles and books. The process is not merely circular, but infinitely weblike in the way that new information shapes, and is shaped by, already existing sources.

What’s more, the kinds of information objects that are available on any given topic depend on several factors: how long the topic has been in discussion, the extent of the discourse surrounding that topic, and the information objects that have already been created on that topic.

Let’s take, for example a story that’s very much been in the news: Donald Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Although the news of the order hit newspaper websites very quickly following the announcement, even before those stories appeared there were innumerable tweets, Facebook posts and other social media commentary offering even quicker takes.

How useful are these quick takes on the issue? Certainly, they serve as a record of the issue’s explosiveness — its vast potential for altering domestic and global social affairs, politics and business. If one’s project is to document the proliferation of information objects about the issue, then gathering the tweets and quick news pieces would be essential. Similarly, a researcher who sought to document the speculation about the effects of the travel bans would need to look at these early sources.

But the usefulness of any particular information source depends very much on the nature of the project at hand — and that source’s place in the information cycle. What if, instead of looking at the speculation about the executive order, one’s project was about examining its effects? For that, one needs something more analytical — one that views the immigration orders at a distance. One might first look at any newspaper articles that appeared since Trump’s announcement — but again, depending on when the research was being conducted (six months after an event? a year? five years?), more detailed, rigorously conducted scholarly sources might be available.

Let’s look at how this plays out in various searches. Searching Google for “Donald Trump executive order immigration” in April — roughly three months after the initial announcement — yielded nearly 3 million results. Closer to home, entering the same keywords into the library’s CrossSearch tool (which searches books as well as numerous article databases) predictably yields fewer results. (Still quite a few at more than 2,000, but not quite the 3 million that Google unearths.)

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Of these results, most are news articles:

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Only a handful appeared in academic journals, and most of these are quick takes of only a page or two, certainly not the detailed, rigorous, analytical pieces one might expect to find in a scholarly publication. To find such an article, it would be necessary to wait until more time had passed — until scholars had been able to perform studies that involved gathering and interpreting survey data, and that carefully surveyed the available literature on the subject.

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Note, too, that the search doesn’t yield any books at all. That’s because books take even more time than scholarly journal articles to put together. Books need to be proposed, written, edited, rewritten and then published before they can arrive on the scene. The advantage of books, whether they appear in print or electronic form, is that they typically represent some of the most considered, most rigorous thinking on a particular topic. But they take time, and usually depend on the fact that previous news articles, scholarly articles and other materials have already appeared on the topic.

And so a hypothetical researcher seeking to examine the effects of immigration bans would certainly want to look at detailed scholarly journals and books, if they were available. But to determine the kind of questions that are even possible, it’s necessary to understand what materials might be in the information-creation process, and thus how helpful or authoritative they might be in answering the question one poses.

So when you ask a research question, it’s a good idea to think about where a topic might be in the overall information-creation process. The answers will help not only in guiding you to the best possible sources to answer your question, but also in figuring out what might be available in the first place.

— Fred Folmer

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