With so many sources: Be sure of credibility of information

Occasionally, I write on subjects that generally are not discussed in agricultural publications. This article will deal with the trust factor as related to sources of information available to farmers.

Producers have numerous sources for information about new technology. These sources include grower meetings sponsored by state Extension services and industry, the popular press, trade publication articles, Extension publications, experiment station bulletins and research reports, and refereed journal articles.

Producers probably will be surprised to learn how much of their new technology is derived from information that appears in refereed journal articles. In fact, most new and/or improved practices come from research results that appear in these publications.

Industry and Extension specialists, other researchers, and presenters at grower meetings glean the pertinent content from these articles and pass it along to producers. Writers of popular press articles often present information that has been or soon will be published in refereed journals.

The information contained in refereed journal articles has been rigorously, thoroughly, and anonymously reviewed by experts in the subject field. Reviewers ensure that the author(s) used proper methods and procedures, and that they accurately interpreted the data to draw valid conclusions.

They also ensure that the experiments producing these results were conducted over a sufficient period of time to establish a clear and statistically meaningful trend.

This source is and should be considered the most accurate and reliable for new information, even though it may not be freely and/or directly available to producers.

Web-based information sources sponsored by industry, university Extension services, university academic departments, and individual Extension specialists/researchers are proliferating. Agricultural producers likely will assume that information that appears on these sites is accurate, relevant, and ready for application in their operations. Therefore, it is imperative that this new information transfer method be done responsibly and credibly.

University and industry departments should oversee the dispensation of online information by requiring and enforcing a formal approval process before materials are posted.

Online information should be peer-reviewed as is that in journal articles and experiment station bulletins and research reports. (It may be summarized from a peer-reviewed source and identified as such.)

Preferably, the information should be derived from a series of planned experiments conducted over a sufficient period of time. If posted information is from preliminary results, this should be stated.

Information posted online should have the support of a sponsoring institution; that is, the posted content should appear on a site maintained by a recognized organization. The information should be presented in enough detail for the reader to readily determine its full meaning and geographic area of application.

For online information, the principal or responsible author's name and contact information (preferably an email address) should be given so that the user can contact him/her for more detail or clarification when necessary.

The date of the posting and/or the latest update should be stated. Online postings should be periodically scrutinized for relevance and recency, and outdated information should be removed or updated.

Producers cannot afford to apply unsubstantiated, unverified, or outdated technology. Providers of online information are responsible for ensuring the integrity of their postings by applying the above fundamental principles that have ensured the quality of journal sources.

If these criteria are not met, potential users should be cautious in accepting and applying information that is posted online.

Larry G. Heatherly is a retired USDA-ARS research agronomist and current crop consultant. e-mail [email protected]

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