College students today use a variety of information sources for research including those found using commercial search engines and the Web. This information gathering process removes traditional mediators and replaces them with search engines driven by unknown proprietary algorithms. It is uncertain how well students understand these search engines and how much critical thinking is involved in evaluating information sources. How appropriate information literacy (IL) instruction is for preparing students for these unmediated searches conducted over the Web is not known. The study reported here evaluated how students perceive information sources using characteristics identified in the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) information literacy standards. The study used a survey designed using the 2000 Association of College and Research Libraries literacy competency standards for higher education. Survey questions examined how subjects perceived the source evaluation criteria of reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, timeliness and point of view or bias. Quantitative analysis was carried out on the data collected from 389 survey respondents who answered twenty-seven multiple choice questions concerning their information search practice and their evaluations of information sources, for a total of 10,503 survey question responses. Survey results based on subjects' answers provided a number of unique insights into how students examine and perceive Web information sources. Findings indicate that subjects primarily use Google as a research source for academic work and appear to be confused about how to determine the author of a source and how to determine the qualifications of the author. About half of the subjects indicated they may not be able to determine the author of an Internet source yet consider it possible to determine the objectivity of the source. Additional findings were made concerning the source evaluation criteria of reliability, validity, accuracy, timeliness and bias. These findings suggest that while the intent of information literacy efforts for college students may be appropriate, the scope may be beyond the grasp of some. Information literacy instruction on source evaluation criteria may need to be reexamined in relation to the various information sources available today. More effective information literacy instruction methods which address the issues identified in this study may need to be implemented.
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