Information literacy is a subversive activity: developing a research-based theory of information discernment

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Geoff Walton


The theory of information discernment discussed here is firmly based on models, research and scholarship of information literacy coupled with theory and research in information behaviour. This paper will explore original research conducted by Walton and Hepworth and how it has developed over the last 10 years - the pilot study was reported in the very first edition of this journal in 2007. It will show that it has led to the emergence of the concept of information discernment and how Foucault’s discourse analysis theory has been used to further critically analyse its application. This paper will show how the research has been applied in a range of contexts, from enabling students in their first year of A-level study in the UK to carry out better research for their extended project qualification (EPQ), to teaching information literacy to undergraduates in various disciplines. This research will then be synthesised to create a new theory of information discernment summarised as: the ways in which social, psychological, behavioural and information source factors influence peoples’ judgements about information. I argue that information discernment should be included in future notions of information literacy and, in particular, informs the ACRL (2016) key threshold concept that authority is constructed and contextual. Attendant psychological notions of worldview, misinformation, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning and epistemic beliefs will be explored to determine how these articulate and enrich this new theory. The paper explores how this theory can be applied in practice beyond the learning environment, and argues that, ultimately, information literacy is a subversive activity which challenges received notions of the construction, communication and exchange of information and knowledge.

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WALTON, Geoff. Information literacy is a subversive activity: developing a research-based theory of information discernment. Journal of Information Literacy, [S.l.], v. 11, n. 1, p. 137-155, june 2017. ISSN 1750-5968. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 26 feb. 2020. doi:
information literacy; information discernment; information behaviour; cognitive questioning; epistemic beliefs; motivated reasoning; confirmation bias; misinformation
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