The Information Life Cycle
When an event or something noteworthy happens, the information about that occurrence goes through a progression of stages where it transforms into different types of information. This is the information timeline, or information cycle. As facts are revealed and discussed, the story about that event becomes richer and often more clear. Information usually starts out on informal channels or through mass media. As time progresses, popular sources of information cover the event. Months and years later, scholarly sources of information may address the event as well.
While this is the general timeline from event to recorded knowledge, not all events will merit scholarly research. In addition, at any time, information can return to the beginning stages of the timeline if related events happen to bring it to public attention. (4)
Understanding where your topic falls in the information life cycle can guide you to likely information sources. Let’s look at how information changed over time after the BP Oil Spill. (4)
Real-World Example: BP Oil Disaster, April 20, 2010
The following example follows an actual event as it progresses through the stages of the information timeline. The event is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill , commonly referred to as the BP oil disaster, in the Gulf of Mexico.
Stop & Think: What kinds of sources are books and encyclopedias?
A book that provides a first-hand account—like an autobiography—is a primary source.
However, most books are considered secondary sources because they are an analysis or interpretation of original information. Encyclopedias are tertiary , or third-hand, information sources, which further repackage the original information because they index, condense, or summarize the original. Both source types are good starting points to discover key points, terminology and issues regarding your topic. However, tertiary sources are usually unacceptable as cited sources in a college research paper. (5) Read more about primary, secondary, and tertiary sources in your textbook chapter. (1)
Information creation is a process that happens over time. The time constraints of publishing, whether on social media or in writing a book, influence the depth and authority of information communicated. It takes little time and effort for an eyewitness to Tweet about an event. That doesn’t mean their account is invalid, but the information they offer is limited to their vantage point. Likewise, breaking news is not as accurate as later reports, when there has been time to gather all of the facts and analyze what occurred. (1)
As a result, sources created at the end of the information cycle will demonstrate deeper understanding of an event, and might have different conclusions from sources presented earlier. (6) If you need information for a current event assignment, sources from days or weeks after an event will be available. However, if you need to write a research paper, choose a topic that has had time to develop; then use more recent publications from scholarly sources, which will provide the depth of information your task requires. (1)
“Information in any format is produced to convey a message and is shared via a selected delivery method. The iterative processes of researching, creating, revising, and disseminating information vary, and the resulting product reflects these differences. … Elements that affect or reflect on the creation, such as a pre- or post-publication editing or reviewing process, may be indicators of quality” (ACRL). (7)
With so many characteristics and types of information to consider, deciding where to start gathering information for academic research can seem overwhelming. Learning about the characteristics of information presented in this module and how different sources of information fit into the “Information Life Cycle” will be a good start! (1)