This page is lightly adapted from Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, (except where otherwise noted)
Just as there are different types of information sources, there are also different types of information
Quantitative or Qualitative
One of the most obvious ways to categorise information is by whether it is quantitative or qualitative. Some sources contain either quantitative information or qualitative information, but sources often contain both.
Many people first think of information as something like what’s in a table or spreadsheet of numbers and words. But information can be conveyed in more ways than text and numbers,
- Quantitative Information – Involves a measurable quantity—numbers are often used. Some examples are length, mass, temperature, and time. Quantitative information is often called data but can also be things other than numbers.
- Qualitative Information – Involves a descriptive judgment using concept words instead of numbers. Gender, country name, animal species, and emotional state are examples of qualitative information.
Increasingly, other formats (such as images, sound, and video) may be is used as information or used to convey information. Some examples:
- A video of someone watching scenes from horror movies, with information about their heart rate and blood pressure embedded in the video. Instead of getting a description of the person’s reactions to the scenes, you can see their reactions.
- A database of information about birds, which includes a sound file for each bird singing. Would you prefer a verbal description of a bird’s song or an audio clip?
- A list of colours, which include an image of the actual colour. Such a list would be extremely helpful, especially if there are many colour names
Fact and Opinion
Faces are statements that are true. Facts are useful to inform or make an argument.
- The United States was established in 1776.
- Dublin is the capital of Ireland
- The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening
Opinions are judgements and beliefs. They are personal points. Well-presented opinions are useful to persuade, but careful readers and listeners will notice and demand evidence to back them up.
- Jaws was a great film
- Curry is better than pizza
- Soccer is better than hurling
The above are not facts, they're simply examples of what people might think. You might think Jaws was a rubbish film, pizza is better than curry, or that hurling is better than soccer. That's fine, each to their own, but if you want to persuade someone of the truth of your point of view, you will need to provide evidence - facts, such as:
- Jaws won three Oscars and has frequently been declared by film critics and industry professionals as one of the greatest movies of all time
- Curries are more fattening than pizzas
- More people play and watch soccer than hurling
Don't forget, you need to provide the source of the evidence supporting your opinion so that people can see the sources of the facts that you are using and decide on the credibility of those sources.
Objective or Subjective
Objective information reflects a research finding or multiple perspectives that are not biased.
- “Several studies show that an active lifestyle reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes.”
- “Studies from the Brown University Medical School show that twenty-somethings eat 25 percent more fast-food meals at this age than they did as teenagers.”
Subjective information presents one person or organisation’s perspective or interpretation. Subjective information can be meant to distort, or it can reflect educated and informed thinking. All opinions are subjective, but some are backed up with facts more than others.
- “The simple truth is this: As human beings, we were meant to move.”
- “In their thirties, women should stock up on calcium to ensure strong, dense bones and to ward off osteoporosis later in life.”
In the last quote above, it’s mostly the “should” that makes it subjective. The objective version of the last quote would read: “Studies have shown that women who begin taking calcium in their 30s show stronger bone density and fewer repercussions of osteoporosis than women who did not take calcium at all.” But perhaps there are other data showing complications from taking calcium and therefore there may be reasons why reasons why women in their thirties maybe shouldn't take calcium supplements; that’s why including the “should” makes the statement subjective.
Thinking about the reason an author creates a source can be helpful to you because that reason might indicate why they those chose the kind of information they included. Depending on that, the author may have chosen to include facts, analysis, and/or objective information. Or, instead, it may have better suited their purpose to include information that was subjective and therefore less factual and analytical. The author’s reason for producing the source also might indicate whether they include information from more than one perspective or just their own.
Authors typically want to do at least one of the following:
- Inform and educate
- Sell services or products
Sometimes authors have a combination of purposes, as when a marketer decides they can sell more smart phones with an informative sales video that also entertains us. The same is true when a singer writes and performs a song that entertains us but that they intend to make available for sale. Other examples of authors having multiple purposes occur in a lot of scholarly writing.
In those cases, authors do want to inform and educate their audiences. But they also want to persuade their audiences that what they are reporting and/or suggesting is a true description of a situation, event or a valid argument that dictates that their audience must take a particular action. In this blend of scholarly author’s purposes, the intent to educate and inform is considered to the intent to persuade. This is basically what you are trying to do in some assignments.
When you're doing research for an assignment, you mostly want to include sources that inform and educate. Unless the research calls for it, it is unlikely that you'd want to include sources trying to sell you something or entertain you. Sources trying to persuade you are a grey area. Scholarly sources, as described above, are fine to use - but check the sources referenced in them. Other sources trying to persuade you that include stuff you know to be not true, or insults or exaggerations are probably not going to be much use to you.
Authors’ intent usually indicates how useful their information can be to your research project, depending on which information need you are trying to meet. For instance, when you’re looking for sources that will help you decide your answer to your research question or evidence for your answer that you will share with your audience, you will want the author’s main purpose to have been to inform or educate their audience. That’s because, with that intent, they are likely to have used:
- Facts where possible.
- Multiple perspectives instead of just his/her own.
- Little subjective information.
- Unbiased, objective language that cites where he/she got the information.
The reason you want to use that kind of source in your assignment or project is that all those characteristics will give credibility to the argument you are making with your project. Both you and your audience will simply find it easier to believe—will have more confidence in the argument being made—when you include those types of sources.
Sources whose authors intend only to persuade others won’t meet your information need or provide any evidence with which to convince your audience. That’s because they don’t stick to facts. Instead, they tell us their opinions without backing them up with evidence. If you use sources like that, your readers will notice and not believe your argument.
This demonstrates why you need to be careful about using web sources. You might find a site that supports your opinion, but the site might hold some rather controversial opinions. Would you use information from a website that said the earth is flat or that John Lennon faked his own death? As with the intent of the author, you will lose credibility by citing sources that state things that are very outlandish. This is why evaluating sources of information is very important.