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Archive for the ‘essays’ Category

Fact-Checking 101: Read Widely

Friday, December 16th, 2016

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Fact-Checking

Fact-checking is hard, but it is almost impossible to assess statements or stories you know nothing about. That’s part of what propagandists play on. There isn’t really any substitute for being broadly informed. What follows is some discussion of what I suggest.


  1. Read widely.
  2. Read more than you watch or listen. TV, video, and radio are usually limited in scope to what looks good/sounds good, and also because most people can read much more than they can see/hear in a given amount of time.
  3. Read outside your Overton Window. Lots of things European and Asian governments do would be unthinkable in the US…and vice versa. Having a frame of reference external to whatever political or social conversation you’re fact-checking helps you decide what’s really outrageous and what isn’t.
  4. Make sure that you’re seeing things you disagree with or are puzzled by daily.

News sources at Tufts

Newspapers work differently in libraryland for a variety of not very interesting reasons, mostly related to money. We don’t usually have access to the newspaper’s website, instead we get them through databases which are mostly designed for search rather than browsing.

Option 1: Web for discovery, library for delivery

As with journal articles, the easiest way to find out if we have something when you hit a paywall is to do a search in Jumbosearch. Be aware that the title of the article sometimes changes a little between the website and the various editions of the paper.

Option 2: Search for discovery

If you’re looking to do comparative analysis of how stories are covered across sources, you’ll want to use one of our newspaper databases.

Lexis-Nexis and Factiva are large collections of mostly English-language newspapers. They’re designed to allow you to readily compare coverage from paper to paper and region to region. Lexis-Nexis also includes transcripts of television and radio network broadcasts.

Tufts also has access to the Boston Globe, The New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times are findable in Lexis-Nexis. For conservative British coverage, you might try the Economist. If you’re looking for less mainstream news coverage, you can try Alt Press Watch or Ethnic News Watch, which focus on smaller publications.

Fact-checking 101: Check the sources

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Fact-Checking

As a librarian and citizen and concerned human I have spent a lot of the last year consuming news in a variety of formats, online and off. In the aftermath of the election I have some thoughts on tools and approaches I take to making sense of it, and to making sure what I’m reading makes sense. This is part 1 in a multi-part series. First: what to fact-check.

There’s a lot of discussion of “fake news” since the election. It’s not fake news, it’s propaganda. Fact-checking propaganda is usually a waste of time, and making opponents waste their time and energy trying to disprove things often serves the propagandist’s purpose. Another tactic is to flood the airwaves with so much nonsense that it’s impossible to have a conversation about certain topics, like climate change. Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina, points out this is a form of censorship. There is also the pragmatic point that people receptive to conspiracy theories are not often receptive to fact-checking.

Don’t try to fact-check something like Pizzagate. Let the New York Times do that–they have a staff and a budget and will work more comprehensively than you likely can.

What I recommend instead is picking the topics you can quickly and easily check on. Most misinformation evaporates if you look at it closely at all. Jumbosearch is the big search box on our homepage. It contains the full contents of the library catalog plus the full text of about 150 million articles. It’s really good for solving a set of common fact-checking problems.

Example 1: new scientific discovery discussed in a news article. Question: is that actually what the study says? First Step: read the article.

  • How: use Jumbosearch to quickly identify if Tufts has an online copy or interlibrary loan it if we don’t. Usually an author’s name and a few distinctive words from the title are all you need. In this case the New York Times has linked to it, but in other cases you’ll need to search.
  • Note: Jumbosearch is also the easiest way to get past paywalls from off-campus. When you hit one, search for the article in Jumbosearch and you’ll be prompted to log in for full text if we have it.

Example 2: an author is discussing their new book with a spectacular claim. Question: is this reasonable? First step: check what reviewers say, especially scholarly ones. Next step: read the book yourself and draw your own conclusions.


Example 3: a friend on Twitter or Facebook or in your email inbox brings up something from a website you’ve never heard of. Question: Is this true? First step: see how other media are talking about the issue.

JS News

Additional useful tools

  • Oxford Reference and Credo Reference are both scholarly Wikipedia equivalents; Credo looks a little bit better on a mobile device, but they otherwise solve the same problem. It’s like having a shelf  of reputable scholarly encyclopedias and dictionaries.
  • BLC Worldcat is a library catalog of library catalogs, essentially books (and videos) and other things in print for several thousand research libraries worldwide, including Tufts. If Tufts has it you’ll see how to get it; if we don’t, you’ll be able to have it delivered in a few days.

These are the tools I reach for first if I read something dubious or doubtful or overly excited. Do this much, and you’ll be better prepared than most.

Next in this series: some suggestions for a balanced media diet, and a few news sources available to the Tufts community.

Dyabola Tips

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Dyabola is an essential resource for archaeology research, but can be a little baffling. In no particular order, here are a few comments about how it works based on my work with it so far. It reminds me a lot of the CD-ROM interface I used for it in 1993.

  • It includes several collections of data we don’t subscribe to–they are in grey on the list and marked “get license”.
  • You’ll need to check the box labeled “Activate IP access” and hit “start”. Select the language of the interface by clicking on the flag you like.
  • Dyabola keeps a list of successful searches (i.e., ones with results) on the right; you can get back to a previous search by clicking on it, or return to the main menu by selecting Search Result Options.
  • What it’s searching is authors and titles; it’s also possible to browse by subject or by DAI record number.
  • Simple keyword searching appears to work fairly well
  • It is possible to combine lists of search results; it’s necessary to search multi-word phrases individually and combine them into a new result…which you have to name.
  • It is possible to print a list of citations
  • Author searching is gender-neutral. Which is to say, use initials rather than first names.
    • When you do a search it opens up a separate window without the usual browser back button and other controls
    • you can right-click (Windows) or option-click (Mac) to get the Back option
    • you can also click on one of the terms in Session Results on the right to get back to a set of results

Questions? Just ask!

How To Find An Article

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

One of the traditional forms of newspaper article is the news report based on a new research study. The newspaper summarizes the science for its readers, but what if you decide you want to follow up and read the original report? Tufts likely has access to whatever journal the article was published in. But the process of moving from point A to point B can be challenging.

Take this story from Science News, which reports that babies as young as two to five *days* old cry in the cadence of their native language. The basic process goes something like this: First, figure out the name and date of the journal article, Then, look up the title of the journal in the library catalog, Next, let the catalog point you in the direction of the database (or, gasp, the physical location) the article lives in, Finally, read and enjoy. This sounds worse than it is. And for those who remember, it’s a lot better than it was ten years ago.

Step 1 can be surprisingly hard. Frequently the news report says only something like “according to a new report by researchers from the Polynesian Institute of Cytotechnology”. Your best option in this case is to find another news story with more details–if one newspaper picked it up, dozens will also have done so.

Taking our Science News story:

Only days after birth, babies have a bawl with language. Newborn babies cry in melodic patterns that they have heard in adults’ conversations—even while in the womb, say medical anthropologist Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany, and her colleagues. By 2 to 5 days of age, infants’ cries bear the tuneful signature of their parents’ native tongue, a sign that language learning has already commenced, the researchers report in a paper published online November 5 in Current Biology.”

That seems straightforward: published online, November 5th. Except, not so much. My attempts to find this online were met with a series of links back to the article I was starting from. So, first principles.

1) Look up “Current Biology” by title in the library catalog. I suggest this because the catalog has the most comprehensive list of the tens of thousands of journal/magazine/newspaper titles we subscribe to, and because attempts to guess which database any given article is in are hit or miss, especially outside one’s specialty.

Catalog search example; click to enlarge

2) Follow the links in the catalog to figure out what we have and where it is.

Catalog search results; click to enlarge

We have Current Biology in electronic form from 1991 to the present in our ScienceDirect database, and from 1998 to 2003 in print form at the Health Sciences library.

Current Biology catalog record; click to enlarge

3) Do a reasonable search using the details at hand.

We have the name of one of the researchers, Kathleen Wermke, which is a distinctive enough name to make a good combination. So, search for “babies language Wermke”.

Science Direct Search; click to enlarge

4) Read and enjoy. Normally you’ll want to look for the HTML or PDF label. For some reason publishers think there are lots of things you’d like to do on a journal article’s page other than, you know, read the article. Sometimes you have to dig for the full text link. This is dumb, but mysterious to me are the ways of publishers.

article found; click to enlarge

This basic process works for all searches where you have citation information for what you want. Journal of Roman Studies? Transactions of the American Philosophical Society? Same process.

Sources for Audio Books

Monday, April 27th, 2009

One question I get routinely and frequently toward the end of a semester is what the library offers in the way of audiobooks. We have about 500 titles here, but I’m also happy to recommend outside websites I’ve found to be good for this sort of thing.

Tisch Library’s Media Center has an assortment of audio books and recordings which might be of interest. Complete list of spoken word titles, in alphabetical order. About 500 titles.

Librivox provides volunteer recordings (often of very high quality) of works in the public domain. For practical purposes this means “published prior to 1923”. This can be very good for classic works like Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (to which your author contributed a couple of chapters), or Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, or most of Dickens’ novels, or several versions of Jane Austen’s major works. Search the Librivox catalog. About 2000 titles.

The Internet Archive’s audio archive contains a random and wonderful assortment of music, audiobooks and poetry, old time radio shows, Grateful Dead recordings, recorded sermons and religious teaching, even a few recordings from wax cylinders and 78s, and a variety of ancient and modern philosophical works and lectures. Thousands and thousands of titles.

The Future of Newspapers

Monday, March 30th, 2009

The economic downturn seems to be accelerating conversations about the future of the newspaper business. Recent announcements that the Christian Science Monitor and Seattle Post-Intelligencer would no longer produce print editions, but would instead be online-only publications have accompanied news that other newspapers will simply close. The Rocky Mountain News simply ceased publication, as have many smaller newspapers across the country.

The implications of this have spawned a series of conversations on the web. Here’s a small sampling of my favorite additions to the standard theme, which tends to run: “The death of newspapers will be the death of an important part of our democracy and civilization.”

Clay Shirky argues quite forcefully in Thinking The Unthinkable that a business based on the expectation that the means of publishing and distribution are expensive and scarce cannot survive when, with the Internet, neither of those things is true. He suggests distinguishing between journalism, which is essential, and newspapers, which are merely one means to that end.

Caveat Lector points out that libraries face similar questions as they manage a transition to a future which is already here–and points to Tom Scheinfeldt at Found History, who suggests that conversations among humanists about whether technology is relevant to teaching and research are disturbingly similar to a divide between pragmatists and realists Shirky describes.

Newspapers are an important part of our common culture, but from the perspective of a library which manages dozens of formats, I am less concerned about the form information takes than I am about the content. My last library had music recorded on wax cylinders. The National Archives has a working version of the machine used to record the Nixon tapes. Every library in the country has VHS tapes which increasingly few patrons have the equipment to handle. Formats change. Newspapers have a long history, but ultimately they are just a way of displaying and distributing a particular kind of information. Hang on, we’ll all work this out together.

Mapping Mutual Incomprehension

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

Classicists love it when people say “It’s all Greek to me” at parties. Really.

The blog Strange Maps has a diagram showing which languages speakers of various other languages consider gibberish. For the French, Javanese. For Croatians, Spanish.

Pew Forum on Religion and American Life

Friday, March 13th, 2009

ThePew Forum on Religon and American Life has a nice collection of reports and survey information on religion and politics. See, for example, their profile of African-Americans and religion, or a report on whether a bad economy leads to higher church attendance rates, or a survey on views of the new Pope, Mormonism, and Islam.

What makes this unique is that, unlike with most other demographic information, there isn’t another neutral party gathering it. Which is not so much to say that denominational reporting is flawed, only that it’s gathered for particular purposes. Usually the federal government is *the* source for demographics and statistics (population, occupation, income, education, etc.–see Fedstats), but the Census bureau hasn’t collected information on religion regularly since 1936 or, in fact, at all since a law forbidding census questions about religion was passed in 1976. The parties listed at the link above are all serious and respectable, but tend to be oriented around Christian churches, with much less-coverage of non-Christian religions. That said, the Association of Religious Data Archives has a really interesting interactive map generator which will give you denominational breakdowns down to county level. Or just type in a zip code you’re interested in.

Have a good spring break.

A few thoughts on Wikipedia

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Wikipedia is a delightfully controversial topic in academia. What’s fascinating about it from my perspective as an information professional is how unlike anything else it is. Originally designed to be something like Encyclopedia Britannica or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the way it is structured and works has a profound influence on how useful it is for any given topic.

The link to the Hitchhiker’s Guide is, of course, to Wikipedia. This is to illustrate two strengths of Wikipedia: its coverage of popular culture, particularly geek culture (the Hitchhiker’s Guide is from a series of science fiction novels by Douglas Adams); and, more importantly, the extent to which it is addressable–that is, the extent to which it is easy for me to link to it so you can see what I’m talking about. It’s possible to link to all manner of library resources, but usually only possible for certain communities of users to have access to them. I could link to the Tufts subscription version of Britannica below, but because I have readers who aren’t members of Tufts I am not, out of courtesy to them and because I can make my point another way.

Comparison of Wikipedia and Britannica

Wikipedia on Iraq War

Encyclopedia Britannica on Iraq War

I find it really hard to argue that the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War isn’t comprehensively superior to the article on Britannica or, in fact, to the coverage in most any specialized scholarly encyclopedia I could name. Here’s why:

1) It cites its sources. Because the topic is so controversial and attracts so much attention, any statement which is not supported by a reference to a reliable external source is almost immediately thrown out. The result is that there are over four hundred footnotes, most to major media outlets and respectable think tank publications. Britannica doesn’t cite its sources explicitly.

2) It’s more detailed. Because a normal encyclopedia is a consensus document you tend to get very bland discussions of controversial topics, which means Britannica tends to take the view that time will tell what the important details to include are. The practical effect of this is that if you want a discussion of the issues related to the US surge policy, still controversial, Britannica is no help at all.

3) All of the versions of the article are available for review. Revisions are signed and at least internally traceable.

4) Its editorial decision-making is available for public viewing. Just click on “Discussion” at the top of the page. The lack of this kind of openness in scholarly publishing leads to Facebook groups like “Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped“, a complaint about the problems with anonymous peer review.

5) It has more contributors, and more editors, and more reviewers, than any print source could hope to have. This is not true for all articles, but it is for high-traffic articles like this one.

6) It will be constantly updated, often within minutes of a new development. Even the online version of Britannica can’t manage that. Try checking Wikipedia for the next fast-developing piece of news, or look at the page history of the article on the Mumbai attacks…which was created within hours of the attack and evolved as more became known.

Wikipedia has its problems, but I find its greater detail and openness about its sources and its process to mostly make up for them. Obscure facts in Wikipedia might or might not attract the same level of attention. Look for part two of this essay, Wikipedia’s problems, right here soon.