Rachel Wexelbaum & Gesina A. Phillips
Carefully consider each source that you find while researching to determine whether it adds useful, accurate information to your research. Please see the Penn State University Libraries guide on Evaluating Information as well as the associated rubric for more good questions to ask to determine the quality of a source.
Some specific questions may shape your evaluation of LGBTQ-focused sources:
- Is the source authoritative? Authority can come from education pertinent to the topic that the author writes about, but can also come from experience with that particular topic. Academic authors, even LGBTQ-identified academic authors, may offer different insights from LGBTQ-identified individuals writing in other venues. A consideration of authority will also help to weed out bad faith actors and insufficiently informed perspectives.
- Is the source biased? Although all sources are influenced by their authors’ perspectives, sometimes the strength of that viewpoint can lead to an incomplete, misleading, or untrue presentation of information. For example, information presented by the anti-LGBTQ group Focus on the Family or the pro-LGBTQ group the Human Rights Campaign may have a political agenda. When evaluating LGBTQ-related information, be sure to pay extra attention to questions such as those from the Evaluating Information Rubric related to “Point of view (bias).”
- Is the LGBTQ terminology used in the source appropriate for your research? Sometimes when researching LGBTQ-related topics you will run across “outdated” terminology and information. Consider the scope of your topic. If you are conducting historical research, different terminology may have been in use. There is also a history of reclamation of derogatory terms by marginalized communities. Then, consider whether the source was one that was likely to have been written in good faith. Is it by members of the LGBTQ community writing about themselves, or by well-informed LGBTQ allies? Or is it by a group or individual that is hostile toward LGBTQ individuals? Historical sources require a similar evaluation process to more current sources, but you may need to conduct a little research about the particular time period before you are able to fully evaluate a historical or archival source.
All of these questions will give you some idea of the relative trustworthiness of a source, although further scrutiny may of course be necessary. You may also need to go back and reevaluate your determination of accuracy as you learn more about your topic.
Biases and LGBTQ Information Availability
Depending on our research topic, we may retrieve multiple results that seem “good enough.” At the same time, we may not be able to construct a complete picture from our findings due to the overrepresentation of certain types of information and the underrepresentation of others. This will impact the LGBTQ+ information available to us, and it may result in rendering particular people, histories, cultures, or events invisible.
There is a wealth LGBTQ Studies scholarship published in English speaking countries, composed by people (predominantly white, cisgender, and able-bodied) from those countries. These scholars have more often had the freedom, institutional support, and access to publishing platforms necessary to disseminate their research. While LGBTQ Studies is emerging as a discipline in other countries, research conducted in languages other than English often remains local. This means that the experiences of LGBTQ people in non-English speaking countries often do not get heard, and information about non-English speaking LGBTQ cultures may be more difficult to find. This bias is reflected in other places as well, such as Wikipedia.
Search engines such as Google can be powerful tools in your search process, but the processes underlying “searching” online require some critique. How Google’s search algorithm works is a closely guarded secret, because Google is a company designed to create profit through services such as search. Remember that algorithms are created by people, and cannot therefore be “neutral”; instead, they recreate human biases which can creep into your information retrieval process. Because you do not know how the algorithm works, what makes a result more “relevant” than another is hidden from you. This is why simply looking at the first result returned by Google or by a database is not a reliable way of finding the most appropriate sources for your research. This chapter can’t fully delve into the politics of search; to learn more, click to read about bias in Google searches or consult Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression.
To reduce some of this bias in search results, make sure to do your background research so you can use varied search terms and identify when the results that you are retrieving are off-topic or problematic. Engage in iterative searching by trying multiple searches on different platforms and perhaps even in different disciplinary databases. Finally, make sure to periodically check the assumptions that you are making about your subject matter to try to ascertain some of your own preconceptions and biases as a researcher.
Compiling and Organizing Content Retrieved from Library Catalogs and Databases
Once you have located helpful resources for your research, you will need to store the content somewhere. You also will need to organize the content so that you can transform it into a bibliography or works cited page for your research assignment. Selecting a citation manager is the safest, most efficient way to save and manage one’s research resources. Mel Johnson of the University of Maine Raymond H. Fogler Library has produced a clear subject guide on how to select and use a citation manager.