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Ekstrom Library

Critical Thinking and Academic Research: Information

This guide explains the fundamental role of critical thinking in the academic research process.

Gather the Information

Research involves gathering and interpreting information. To answer a question or understand the complexity of an issue, you have to seek relevant information, which helps you develop your own point of view.

It's important to remember, though, that information from outside sources should not stand in for your thinking. Sometimes, people think that gathering information and summarizing it in a paper is all there is to the research process. But finding information is just part of the process.

Research involves applying critical thinking to information, whether it comes from an encyclopedia entry, a journal article, a website, or a documentary. A researcher analyzes the material and develops a perspective on it. The goal is to think critically about the information, not simply repeat its ideas.

The purpose of your research and the questions you're trying to answer will determine what information is relevant and useful. If you're trying to understand public opinion on an issue, it might be worthwhile to look at news articles and blog entries. On the other hand, such sources may not be appropriate for a formal philosophical argument or a medical study.

Sources used in academic papers might include scholarly journals, books, research reports, government documents, films, comic books, magazines, newspapers, maps, statistics, letters, diaries, dictionaries, musical recordings, and more. It all depends on your purpose.

The Complexity of the Information Universe

The information universe is very complex, so it's important to understand the differences among information sources. For instance, online information includes commercial websites, personal blogs, subscription databases, professional news sites, government resources, Wikipedia entries, Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, and much more. Different research projects require different types of sources. In many cases, you will need to look beyond the free web to find scholarly information in subscription library databases such as ProQuest Direct and EBSCO Academic Search Premier.

Understanding varying levels of complexity in information sources is also important. For example, a reference encyclopedia might provide useful background information on postmodernism, but it will not provide the level of sophistication and depth offered in an original work of postmodern theory or a scholarly article that applies that theory.

While background sources are useful and will help you understand more complex material, most professors expect you to explore in-depth, scholarly sources, most of which are not available on the free web. That's one reason why learning to use library resources is crucial.

Critical Questions

  • What information do I need to address this question or understand this topic?
  • How much information do I need?
  • Where can I find this information?
  • How do I know this information is reliable and authoritative?
  • Is this information relevant to my purpose?
  • Who is the audience for this information?
  • What perspective does this information come from? What are its biases?
  • Is the information current enough?