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)


  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 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. 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.

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?

There is limited published research on how late primary, secondary, community college, and undergraduate STEM students identify and determine credibility. We collected data from almost 180 STEM students from grade 4 through graduate school as they participated in a simulation. They selected resources for a hypothetical school assignment from search engine results, and judged the credibility and container of the resources.

The findings from these simulations can be used to help create better information literacy and digital literacy instruction, and improve students’ ability to effectively discover, access, and use online resources. New publications and presentations will be posted here and on the University of Florida site.


Blog Posts & Trade Publications

Stop Source-Shaming: Acknowledge Wikipedia in the research process:
American Libraries | 1 September 2021
By Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Joyce Valenza

Connaway and Valenza share results showing that established professionals commonly start with Wikipedia to get their bearings on a topic before diving further into the literature.

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.


    Students’ Perceptions of Preprints Discovered in Google: A Window into Recognition And Evaluation

    1 January 2023

    Tara Tobin Cataldo, Ixchel M. Faniel, Amy G. Buhler, Brittany Brannon, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Samuel Putnam

    Preprints play an important role in scholarly conversation. This paper examines perceptions of preprints through the lens of students using a simulated Google environment.  

    How real is real enough? Participant feedback on a behavioral simulation used for information-seeking behavior research

    12 January 2022

    This paper assesses the realism of a behavioral simulation used to study the evaluation behavior of 175 students from fourth grade through graduate school. We assess realism through the examination of targeted participant feedback about what would have made the simulated environment and tasks more realistic to these participants. Based on this feedback, we reflect on decisions made in designing the simulation and offer recommendations for future studies interested in incorporating behavioral simulation in their research design.

    Genre Containers: Building a Theoretical Framework for Studying Formats in Information Behavior

    26 October 2021

    Brittany Brannon, Amy G. Buhler, Tara Tobin Cataldo, Ixchel M. Faniel, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Joyce Kasman Valenza, Christopher Cyr

    Prior studies have shown high-level differences in people's perception and use of various information formats. However, the lack of a coherent and theoretically informed framework of elements of format has inhibited a nuanced understanding of the role that formats play in information behavior. This paper draws on theories from the field of rhetoric and composition to ground the study of information format in a social constructivist perspective that foregrounds action in context. 

Project Lead:

Amy Buhler, MSLS, Principal Investigator, University of Florida

Active Team Members

Former Team Members

  • Joyce Kasman Valenza, Ph.D., Co-Principal Investigator
  • Randy Graff, Ph.D., Investigator
  • Rachael Elrod, M.Ed., MSLS, Investigator
  • Christopher Cyr, Ph.D., Investigator
  • Erin M. Hood, M.L.I.S., Investigator
  • Christine Towler, Research Assistant
  • Robin Fowler, MSLIS, Program Assistant
  • Summer Howland, Instructional Designer
  • Shakiyl Kirlew, Research Assistant
  • Kailey Langer, Research Assistant