Researching Students’ Information Choices:

Determining Identity and Judging Credibility in Digital Spaces

In the information overload of today’s digital world, determining the purpose, quality, and trustworthiness of resources is essential to finding good information. By studying how STEM students identify resource types and judge credibility in online spaces, this project will help to develop meaningful strategies for teaching the information literacy skills that will allow students to successfully navigate the ever-evolving online landscape.

Full project website (University of Florida)


As of June 2018, the OCLC User Studies Research team, the University of Florida, and Rutgers University have finished collecting data from almost 180 STEM students from grade 4 through graduate school. After participating in a simulation study where students were asked to identify and judge the credibility of online resources, the majority report feeling pretty confident selecting online information for research projects. Most students also think it’s important to know the container or type of online resource (i.e., whether the source is a book, blog, journal, magazine, website, etc.).

Judging the container can be difficult in an online environment, however, given what the researchers call container collapse, meaning that the visual context and cues that print containers used to provide to help individuals identify documents’ origins are now obscured or are more difficult to discern. In digital format, a document is “decanted” from its original container and must be carefully examined to determine the journey it took to reach the individual. Preliminary analysis suggests students have trouble unless the type of container is included in the resource’s URL.

Read the latest project updates on the University of Florida site.


  1. Study the online information-seeking behaviors of two under-studied groups:
    • Late elementary and middle school students
    • STEM students
  2. Determine whether students are format agnostic in online environments
  3. Inform practical, effective approaches to information literacy instruction


For this research project, we will consider whether students are format agnostic. First coined by Abram and Luther (2004), the term refers to students who either cannot or do not identify the container (i.e. document type) when making judgments relating to use of digital resources. Several usage studies have reported that students experience trouble distinguishing among different digital resources, such as e-books and e-journals (Croft, 2004; Levine-Clark, 2006; Shelburne, 2009). Soules (2009) goes so far as to say “E-book, e-journal? Users don’t care; in fact they never cared, and many only understood book vs. journal in the print world because of the difference in their physical structures. What they want is relevant content” (pg. S4).

But how do students distinguish whether relevant digital content is also credible digital content? Given the limited published research on how late primary, secondary, community college, and undergraduate STEM students identify and determine credibility, this project will provide new knowledge to librarians and educators. This information will be promulgated with practitioners for incorporation into information literacy courses, and other teaching and learning environments to aid STEM students in effectively determining credibility in the discovery, access, and use of digital resources.


Blog Posts

What is “container collapse” and why should librarians and teachers care?
Blog post  |  20 June 2018
By Lynn Silipigni Connaway
Connaway provides an update to the work being done as part of the study Researching Students’ Information Choices (RSIC): Determining Identity and Judging Credibility in Digital Spaces. She focuses on initial results and defining the concept of container collapse.
Posted on the OCLC Next Blog.

Find more project outputs on the University of Florida site.


    Backgrounds and behaviors: Which students successfully identify online resources in the face of container collapse

    15 February 2021

    Christopher Cyr, Tara Tobin, Brittany Brannon, Amy G. Buhler, Ixchel M. Faniel, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Joyce Kasman Valenza, Rachael Elrod, Samuel R. Putnam

    This study of students from primary through graduate school looks at their ability to identify the containers of information resources, and how this ability is affected by their demographic traits, the resource features they attended to, and their behaviors during a task-based simulation. 

    Mixed methods data collection using simulated Google results: reflections on the methods of a point-of-selection behaviour study

    16 December 2020

    Tara Tobin Cataldo, Amy G. Buhler, Ixchel M. Faniel, Brittany Brannon, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Christopher Cyr, Kailey Langer, Erin M. Hood, Joyce Kasman Valenza, Rachael Elrod, Randy A. Graff, Samuel R. Putnam, and Summer Howland

    A multi-institutional, grant-funded project employed mixed methods to study 175 fourth-grade through graduate school students’ point-of-selection behaviour. The method features the use of simulated search engine results pages to facilitate data collection.

    Science and News: A Study of Students’ Judgments of Online Scientific News Information

    13 January 2020

    Tara Tobin Cataldo, Kailey Langer, Amy G. Buhler, Samuel R. Putnam, Rachael Elrod, Ixchel M. Faniel, PhD, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, PhD, Christopher Cyr, PhD, Brittany Brannon, Joyce Kasman Valenza, PhD, Erin M. Hood, Randy A. Graff, PhD

    This paper explores how students judge scientific news resources, as they might find through a Google search. The data were collected as part of an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded project. 

Project Lead:

Amy Buhler, MSLS, Principal Investigator, University of Florida

Team Members

  • Amy Buhler, MSLS, Principal Investigator, University of Florida
  • Tara Tobin Cataldo, MLS, Co-Principal Investigator, University of Florida
  • Ixchel M. Faniel, Ph.D., Co-Principal Investigator, OCLC
  • Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Ph.D., Co-Principal Investigator, OCLC
  • Joyce Kasman Valenza, Ph.D., Co-Principal Investigator, Rutgers University
  • Randy Graff, Ph.D., Investigator, UF Health
  • Rachael Elrod, M.Ed., MSLS, Investigator, University of Florida
  • Erin M. Hood, M.L.I.S., Research Support Specialist, OCLC
  • Brittany Brannon, M.A., Research Assistant, OCLC
  • Christine Towler, Research Assistant
  • Robin Fowler, MSLIS, Program Assistant
  • Samuel R. Putnam, MLS, University of Florida
  • Summer Howland, Instructional Designer
  • Shakiyl Kirlew, Research Assistant
  • Kailey Langer, Research Assistant