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Magazines > ONLINE > July/August 2009
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Online Magazine

Vol. 33 No. 4 — Jul/Aug 2009

Transforming Information Quality
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

Information professionals are devoted to finding quality information. No one doubts that. We high-mindedly point to peer review, value-added indexing, and sophisticated search strategies as guarantors of quality. Sometimes that’s the correct approach. Certainly in academia, where students and faculty should be learning (and doing) rigorous scholarly research, our traditional definitions of, and approach to, determining the quality of information is appropriate. Quality trumps quantity. We strive for precision over recall.

On campus, whether it’s virtual or physical, information transformation is obvious. Researchers are finding blog posts, discussion group entries, videos, microblog comments, links from Tweets, shared resource sites, Wikipedia articles, podcasts, and preprints on scholarly topics. Should they factor into the research process? Possibly, depending upon the accuracy and reliability of the content, regardless of the format of the content. This, again, is a quality decision. However, it largely depends upon the reputation of the individual behind the social media. There’s no peer review, indexing, or sophisticated strategizing. A full professor with a solid background should be taken more seriously than an unknown undergraduate. On the other hand, some full professors are taken more seriously in their chosen fields than others. Consider the proponents of cold fusion. Still, quality should trump quantity; precision should take precedence over recall.

Reputation has a different connotation when it comes to business research. How consumers view a company has a significant impact on its ability to be profitable. I think highly of a company and buy its products until I learn it employs child laborers in dangers situations and pays slave wages. Then I turn away. But is this reputation deserved or composed of unfounded rumors? This cuts both ways. Bernie Madoff was a respected financier until the world found out he ran a Ponzi scheme. How much information do we need to ascertain truth from fiction, facts from rumors?

The amount of information now published as social media is staggering. Those who worried about information overload a decade ago are now experiencing near-panic. It’s harder to evaluate quality when information on the internet appears in such varying guises. It’s harder to nail down precision when recall is overwhelming.

Another issue is transparency. We are flooded with information, but is it the information we need? Are government agencies truly transparent with their data? Or is there so much information that it obfuscates rather than elucidates? When we search online, are we relying on journalists to interpret data for us or looking at primary sources? Are we rating quantity over quality, even if inadvertently?

The rivalry between quality and quantity is not new. Discerning quality as quantity increases, however, is becoming increasingly difficult. When information professionals are confronted with masses of data, determining what is true is a vital skill. It’s not that we lack information, it’s how the information is interpreted, analyzed, and acted upon. It’s not the precision/recall ratio; it’s judgment. It’s listening to different voices, gaining new evaluation skills, and paying attention to new quality measures. I believe this transformation of information quality is only at the beginning stage and will open up exciting avenues for information professionals to progress in their careers.

Marydee Ojala is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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