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Magazines > ONLINE > September/October 2009
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Online Magazine

Vol. 33 No. 5 — Sep/Oct 2009

Iíll Know It When I See It
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

When I worked a reference desk, confronted with clients unclear on exactly what they wanted, I generally asked, “What would your perfect answer look like?” I’ve had people tell me that, although they couldn’t exactly describe a perfect answer, they would know it when they saw it. That comment always reminded me of the “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like” remark.

In a world born digital, I think it’s harder to know what you’re seeing, since the web conceals and reveals information. Those teaching information literacy struggle to convey the basic principles of quality assessment of websites to students. They show examples of biased and unbiased sites, of those with an aboveboard agenda, and those with nefarious intent. But what about our traditional information sources?

As our story on Elsevier’s Australasian journals shows, even journals that look as if they are peer-reviewed may not be. Granted, it’s a tiny minority. More troubling is the escapade of Philip Davis, a Ph.D. student at Cornell, and Kent Anderson, of The New England Journal of Medicine, who wrote a nonsense paper for the peer-reviewed, open access The Open Information Science Journal ( Titled “Deconstructing Access Points,” it used a computer to generate a scholarly-looking paper that should have failed human peer review. Only after it was accepted for publication—and an $800 publication fee requested—did Davis and Anderson withdraw it. Suppose it had been published. Would readers have recognized it for the hoax it was?

On a trustworthiness scale, peer-reviewed journals rank at the top for scholars and librarians. Businesspeople trust mainstream publications such as The Wall Street Journal and their industry’s trade press. There is evidence, from numerous studies, that lately peer consensus has increasing value on the trust continuum. If I’m a student and my peers, other students, agree on something then it must be true. Librarians trust other librarians. Opinion agreement equates to trustworthiness.

Those of us who do serious research sometimes get too serious. We forget about jokes, pranks, and silliness. With information professionals now routinely communicating via Facebook, FriendFeed, and Twitter, we sometimes forget that not everyone, not even our peers, are truthful, solemn, or straightforward all the time.

A friend of my son’s, for example, took a random photograph and tagged the strangers in it with names of people he knew. It wasn’t malicious—the photograph was innocuous—and my son, who was tagged, thought it hilarious. If you search Flickr for him, you’ll wonder how he got so old so soon.

Will you know it when you see it? It could be an online optical illusion, a practical joke, or a humorous hoax. It could equally be deliberately misleading, malevolent, or incorrect. The web obscures types of information, making quality assessment difficult. Born-digital information is neither intrinsically good nor bad. It’s the duty of information professionals to know what they’re seeing and to interpret it for clients.

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

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