There are many different ways to obtain the information we are looking for. Until not long ago, when we were interested in some topic, we would go to a library and search through tens of meters of shelves with books and journals, while in the age of the Internet it seems like all the information are accessible in a minute. Yet, is it really so?
Basic advantages and disadvantages of various sources of information will be reviewed in this article, with the aim of showing that all of them still have their place in the information domain. I will briefly tackle the issue of intellectual property, define academic and non-academic sources of information, look at the use of various encyclopaedias, and give some useful advice on how to use different sources of information while studying.
The article is particularly useful for the students who write seminar and final papers or graduate thesis, or intend to publish professional or scientific paper.
Since the early 15th century when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, till the 21st century information revolution, paper book has been one of the basic sources of information. Its main advantages are comparatively simple multiplying, availability and easiness of use. Electronic books, including this textbook, bring additional advantages: copying by several clicks of a mouse, availability from all around the world through any device with the Internet connection, simple navigation… However, the use of electronic books also brings numerous problems such as the issues of intellectual property, availability to the part of mankind without access to the Internet, etc. More on the issue of electronic books and textbooks can be found in the work of Petar Jandrić ‘Društveni aspekti razvoja i uporabe elektroničkih udžbenika’ (Social Aspects of Development and Use of Electronic Textbooks, in Croatian).
If you really want to grasp a topic, the easiest thing to do is to find a book which at one place gives a systematic review of that matter. Other sources of information such as the Internet and academic papers on specialised topics frequently offer a superficial or partial information which can easily take the user to the wrong path. Therefore, in academic work, book is an irreplaceable source of information that cannot be entirely replaced by shorter forms of expression. Yet, the books have some serious limitations: their use demands comparatively plenty of time while the information included are often at least several years old. When reading fiction, it does not matter whether we read (e.g. famous Croatian writer Miroslav) KrleĹľa’s book printed in 1980 or in 2010, because both of them contain the same text, while a few years are a very long period of time when it comes to the professional and scientific papers, especially in the domains developing as fast as the information sciences. So, let us take a look at the sources which can help us more in finding the most recent information.
If you want to do a more detailed research into some topic, or ‘only’ to get informed on the most recent professional and scientific achievements, books are not enough. Another important source of information that we can use are academic journals, namely the reviewed publications which release professional and scientific articles from a particular field. Academic journals are published on a regular schedule and serve as a platform to announce the most recent professional and scientific findings, i.e. a criticism of the existing research results; they can contain many types of articles. More on academic journals can be found in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Members of Croatian academic community, including the students and the teaching staff of the Zagreb Polytechnic, have access to numerous academic journals via the CARNet (Croatian and Academic Research Network) online databases, but browsing such bases is often not easy even for the Internet experts. In order to make it easier for you to navigate the complicated world of online academic sources, we recommend the Online Databases Search Handbook. It was written by Jadranka Stojanovski from The Ruđer Bošković Institute and published in Croatian by CARNet. It is free for all the members of Croatian academic and research community.
The Internet sources
Today, the most frequent type of fast getting the information on any topic is undoubtedly browsing the Internet @ we turn on our favourite search engine, enter the keywords and that is it! In a few milliseconds a huge world of information opens to us. But do you know that a great part of the web is invisible to ordinary search engines? How can we find the data we are interested in and avoid those we are not, and at the same time not lose some important information? Finally, once we have found an interesting Internet site on the topic we search for, how can we know that the data given on that page are accurate and reliable? The answers to these questions can be found in the book ‘Pretraživanje i vrednovanje informacija na Internetu’ (How to Find and Evaluate the Internet Information, in Croatian), written by Ĺ˝eljana VuÄŤina.
When we have finally found the source which is relevant for our work, the question is in which manner we are allowed to use it. To avoid law-breaking and infringing the rights of the author and/or the publisher, it is necessary to know the legal regulations, but that is not the only reason for getting informed on the law. Many of you create software or develop different projects which are also subject to the laws on the protection of intellectual property. To learn about this complex issue in a simple fashion, we recommend you the book ‘Uvod u zaĹˇtitu intelektualnog vlasništva u Republici Hrvatskoj’ (Introduction to Protection of Intellectual Property in the Republic of Croatia, in Croatian), written by Tihomir Katulić.
Academic sources of information
In everyday life we equally use various sources of information: we read newspapers, watch TV, search the Internet, read books… In order to create a correct and balanced image of the world around us, we critically view the sources of information that we use. For instance, some burning political issue can provoke mutually opposite comments in the left-leaning and right-leaning newspapers; or two participants in an Internet forum can have irreconcilable views about the quality of some software.
Academic community, however, tends to reach common truths. For example, in the classes of physics only one and the same Ohm’s law is taught in all schools, yet it is a more complex task to achieve an agreement on common truths in social and humanistic studies. Still, most of the academic community can agree on the artistic value of some novel or on the existence of some social phenomena such as social reproduction. The question of veracity of the scientific research is very complicated and has been the subject of epistemological researches for centuries. Epistemology is a complex scientific discipline which goes far beyond this textbook and we are not going to deal with it for now.
Let us briefly see how scientifically accepted truth is achieved. The author makes an opinion about some topic, corroborates it with theoretical and/or practical arguments and publishes it in a book or an academic journal. The editors read the paper and send it to be reviewed by prominent experts in the field. Provided they agree about the scientific value of the text, they give permission for it to be published. After publishing, it is available to entire academic community. If the conclusions put forward are accurate, someone will use them in his/her own paper and build them into further researches. And if the conclusions are not viable, someone else will try to disprove them with arguments, publishing a critique. The scientific truth is thus obtained by a consensus of the whole academic and research community.
Academic sources of information are all the texts that have passed through that sort of publishing procedure, namely of examining, so the same applies to this textbook which has two reviewers who guarantee for its validity.
Encyclopaedias are a typical example of academic source of information. They contain accurate, concise, examined, namely easily examinable information, which are neutral by definition, i.e. they do not convey personal opinions of the authors but only scientifically accepted and verified truths. If you want to find out more on encyclopaedias, click here. The list of encyclopaedias which you could find useful in your work are in the Bibliography section.
Wikipedia differs from standard academic sources by its editing policy. Namely, it does not have a single editor, but the editing decisions are the result of consensus of the whole community, which has both advantages and disadvantages. According to Giles’ famous article published in Nature (2005), Wikipedia is even more accurate than Encyclopaedia Britannica. Of course, the publishers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica claim the opposite, but that is the topic for a deeper academic discussion. For more on this, see Petar Jandrić’s article Wikipedia and education: anarchist perspectives and virtual practices.
Most contemporary scientists do not regard Wikipedia as a scientific, academic source @ and rightly so. Sometimes it contains obviously inaccurate data and such errors are inexcusable in science. However, most agree that the information we find on Wikipedia are exceptionally useful if we know how to interpret them in a proper way.
Wikipedia can serve us as an excellent starting point. Bibliography listed in the references below its articles often contains numerous academic sources, so the information should be checked there. As a fast and efficient source of information whose editorial policy brings about a rapid response to changes, Wikipedia is a precious encouragement to thinking and a page where links to many academic sources can be found, but as of now it itself is not yet an academic source and therefore it should not be cited directly in seminar papers and graduate theses. If you find an interesting data on Wikipedia, check it in some academic source and quote that source as relevant. In that manner Wikipedia will maintain a precious role in your academic work, and the scientific credibility will be preserved.
Use of various sources of information
A house is always built from the foundation. In terms of science, an accurate conclusion cannot be based on an inaccurate information. Accordingly, when writing academic papers, exclusively academic sources should be used. Your seminar, professional and final papers and similar, are academic papers too, so they have to be grounded exclusively in academic sources.
However, the academic sources of information are not always possible to use. For instance, if we analyse a new software, or if we want to study public opinion on a new law, we will find relevant information in less formal sources such as websites and/or the Internet forums. This alone is not a reason to give up research in the topic, as non-academic sources of information can be used in professional and scientific work, but they must be adequately critically judged.
Imagine, for example, that we want to assess the relevance of an Internet review of some new software. First, let us take a look at who has written the review. If the reviewer is close to the software manufacturer, there is a real possibility that the reviewer benefits from the affirmative review, and if he is close to the rival manufacturer, there is a real possibility that he benefits from the negative review. When a theory accepted by the academic and research community is analysed, it is not too important who is the author of the text. Relevance of the author’s identity is not equally important in natural, technical, social and humanistic sciences, but we will temporarily disregard those differences @ Newton’s laws can be equally properly learnt from many textbooks written by different authors. Yet, the authorship is the fundamental question when a non-academic source of information is analysed.
The above mentioned example is only the iceberg of assessing the non-academic sources of information. If you want to use non-academic sources of information in your work, you should definitely study the book ‘Pretraživanje i vrednovanje informacija na Internetu’ (How to Find and Evaluate the Internet Information, in Croatian), written by Ĺ˝eljana VuÄŤina.
Giles, J. (2005). ‘Internet encyclopaedias go head to head’, Nature, Vol. 438.
Jandrić, P. (2010). Wikipedia and education: anarchist perspectives and virtual practices. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 8(2), pp. 48-72).
Jandrić, P. (2012). DruĹˇtveni aspekti razvoja i uporabe elektroničkih udžbenika. Knjiga radova sa konferencije Tiskarstvo 2012 (Social Aspects of Development and Use of Electronic Textbooks. Conference book of the international design conference Tiskarstvo 2012). Editor: Vilko Žiljak. Zagreb: Sveučilište u Zagrebu (University of Zagreb). Text available here (in Croatian).
Katulić, T. (2006). Uvod u zaštitu intelektualnog vlasništva u Republici Hrvatskoj (Introduction to Protection of Intellectual Property in the Republic of Croatia). Zagreb: Hrvatska akademska i istraživačka zajednica @ CARNet (Croatian Academic and Research Network). Text available here (in Croatian).
Stojanovski, J. (2005). Priručnik za pretraživanje (Search Handbook). Zagreb: Centar za online baze podataka (Centre for Online Databases). Text available here (in Croatian).
VuÄŤina, Ĺ˝. (2006). Pretraživanje i vrednovanje informacija na Internetu (How to Find and Evaluate the Internet Information). Zagreb: Hrvatska akademska i istraživačka zajednica @ CARNet (Croatian Academic and Research Network). Text available here (in Croatian).