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Critical Thinking Resources for Women's Issues

Congressional Research Service

The Library of Congress houses the Congressional Research Service, “the public policy research arm of the United States Congress.” The CRS performs independent, nonpartisan and objective research for members of Congress and their staffs on a nearly endless array of issues. The Librarian of Congress appoints the director of the CRS, which has a large, knowledgeable staff and receives a sizable budget.

The CRS no longer releases its reports to the general public, but many can be found fairly easily online. The U.S. State Department and independent groups including the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Council for Science and the Environment post the full text of some CRS reports relating to each group’s area of interest. The Open CRS Network website has a search engine that combines the resources of several, though not all, of these sites. The public can also purchase reports from some websites. And if time permits, individuals can request paper copies of specific reports directly from their senator or representative.

The CRS is acclaimed for its objective and thorough analyses. Authors are aware that they are writing for an audience that includes both Republicans and Democrats, and they are meticulous about avoiding partisanship.

Guttmacher Institute

The Guttmacher Institute was founded in 1968 as the Center for Family Planning Program Development and was named after Alan Guttmacher, a former president of Planned Parenthood and distinguished obstetrician-gynecologist. It provides the most highly respected statistics on the sexual health of women and men. Its figures on abortion are widely cited by the media as well as by groups on both sides of the political aisle. Among the institute’s donors are Planned Parenthood, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Population Affairs, UNAIDS, the GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and  the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

While the Guttmacher Institute’s statistics are highly reliable, its approach to reproductive health may rub anti-abortion activists and supporters the wrong way. According to its mission statement, the Guttmacher Institute promotes “societal respect for and protection of personal decision-making with regard to unwanted pregnancies and births, as well as public and private-sector policies that support individuals and couples in their efforts to become responsible and supportive parents, maintain stable family structures and balance parenting with other roles.”

Comments: The Guttmacher Institute’s empirical findings are widely cited with good reason and should be trusted.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation, one of the nation’s best-known think tanks on the right, says its mission is to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

Heritage scholars generally argues for lower taxes, less spending for social programs and less government regulation of business. When Heritage criticizes Republicans it is often for being too liberal: It supported President Bush’s first-term tax cuts, for example, but criticized his expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs.

Comments: Facts cited by Heritage are generally solid and well-documented, though quite often they reflect only one side of an ideological debate.

Political Leanings: Strongly conservative

Librarians’ Internet Index

Librarians’ Internet Index is a compendium of links and descriptions of websites that have been selected by a team of librarians. Publicly funded by the states of California and Washington, the site includes more than 20,000 entries that focus on a host of topics, from politics and legal issues to film and sports. LII is produced by six paid consultants who are assisted by more than 40 librarian contributors.

Started by a reference librarian in the early 1990s, LII is now under the management of the Peninsula Library System, a consortium of public and community college libraries in California. In 2002, the site launched a more limited partnership with Washington State Library, and it offers numerous websites of interest to those two states. Most of LII’s money comes from the California State Library, but site managers have been exploring other funding sources.

Users can subscribe to a free weekly newsletter that highlights various websites. It’s also possible to search the site or browse the links by 14 main topic areas and hundreds of subtopics. Visitors can narrow each list of sites by clicking on additional topics. The websites that LII features must meet various criteria, which include whether information is available for free and whether it’s credible.

Comments: LII is a valuable tool for researching any number of topics. The sheer volume of vetted websites is impressive. The amount of material, however, sometimes leads to rather eclectic lists of sites for a given topic and some misclassification. Specific searches yield the best results.

Political Leanings: None

NARAL Pro-Choice America

NARAL Pro-Choice America describes itself as “the leading national advocate for personal privacy and a woman’s right to choose.”
NARAL monitors federal and state-level legislation and court cases on abortion, birth control, sex education and related topics, posting issue briefs designed to inform and marshal activists. It also rates House and Senate members on their voting records.

Comments: NARAL Pro-Choice America is a prominent advocate of abortion rights, and its Web site provides an up-to-date guide to developments on that issue from the group's point of view.

Political Leanings: Liberal, favors right to abortion

Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood describes itself as “a visible and passionate advocate for policies that enable Americans to access comprehensive reproductive and sexual health care, education, and information.”

Planned Parenthood is known for its hundreds of clinics throughout the country that provide reproductive health services, including testing, birth control and, in some cases, abortions. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America website provides overviews of topics related to sexual health such as birth control methods and sexually transmitted diseases. The information is solid and down-the-middle except on the topic of abortion, where the organization’s pro-abortion rights perspective is clear. The Planned Parenthood Action Center, which has a separate Web site, describes what the organization is doing on issues such as health care overhaul and abortion rights and encourages volunteers to get involved.

Comments: Planned Parenthood's website gives straightforward and authoritative information on birth control, abortion, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, while also advocating in favor of freedom to obtain an abortion.

Political Leanings: Liberal, favors right to abortion

Regulations.gov

Regulations.gov was set up in 2003 to better equip citizens to find, view and comment upon the vast array of federal regulations.

After Congress passes laws, federal agencies are responsible for enforcing them. They use regulations to accomplish that task, spelling out in detail how specific statutes are to be implemented. Each new proposed regulation must go through a notice-and-comment process, meaning that an agency must publicly announce a proposed regulation and then allow citizens the chance to weigh in. Keeping track of these draft rules once was a daunting project, as there are thousands of federal regulatory agencies. Regulations.gov simplifies the process by collecting proposed regulations from each federal agency and offering a forum for submitting comments on them.

The site also catalogs existing federal regulations, so that anyone wanting to check the wording of rules that were issued to implement, say, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act can find them here.

The site can be searched by keywords, phrases or rule numbers. A short glossary of regulatory terms is provided, as is an extensive user guide. The site also includes an RSS feed that provides up-to-the-minute notice of new federal regulations.

Comments: The basic keyword search is straightforward, but the most powerful search functions require considerable knowledge of the regulatory process. If you know what you are looking for, Regulations.gov offers one-stop shopping. It is less useful for casual browsing and novices.

Social Science Research Council

The Social Science Research Council is a New York-based “independent not-for-profit research association” that brings the work of academic social scientists to contemporary social problems. Recent projects include studying the causes of state violence, fostering understanding of Muslim communities and analyzing the human impact of Hurricane Katrina.

The staff and affiliated scholars of the Social Science Research Council are largely professional academic social scientists. About three-quarters of the board of directors are professors at respected universities. The council says it is funded “from a range of private foundations and public institutions.” Documents available on its website show that its largest contributors include the Mellon, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the U.S. State Department.

The council currently organizes its work into four main areas: Global Security and Cooperation, Knowledge Institutions, Migration and The Public Sphere. Its website contains online articles written by staff members and a quarterly journal featuring work by independent scholars working on SSRC-related projects.

Comments: The Social Science Research Council is a clearinghouse for academic work in the social sciences. Its reports are, for the most part, free from partisan slant. They are fine sources of information, though they may be more technical and jargon-filled than reports from "think tanks" like the Brookings Institution.

Political Leanings: Neutral

United Nations

The United Nations’ website contains a huge amount of information that dates back to the global governing body’s inception in 1945. From the U.N. home page there are links to several of its divisions and programs; unfortunately, due to the website’s outdated layout, it can be difficult to navigate.

For research purposes, a long listing of links to U.N.-supported sites, from UNICEF to the U.N. Volunteer Program, can be found at the site index page. Also, visitors can search the U.N.’s statistical database, which contains statistics on member countries and economic issues, and the U.N. documents database, which holds U.N. documents such as official letters, releases and resolutions dating back to 1993. (The site says it will add documents dating back to the 1940s.) The site also has a U.N. “cyber school” page, which aims to teach children about U.N. countries and developments.

Comments: While it’s not particularly user-friendly at first, the U.N. site has plenty of valuable content, from its statistics databases to the many U.N. program sites.

Urban Institute

The Urban Institute says it is a “nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization” focusing on “the social, economic, and governance problems facing the nation.” It has its roots in the Great Society era of government anti-poverty programs; it was chartered by a blue-ribbon commission assembled by President Lyndon Johnson to examine problems and issues faced by the nation’s urban populations.

The Urban Institute’s website offers detailed information, organized both by topic and by policy center, which are research arms within the Institute that focus on specific areas. The Issues in Focus section offers summaries of the group’s research, along with links to more in-depth reports relating to specific areas of policy disputes, such as Social Security reform, immigration and education. The institute also maintains a Policy Decoder section, which is a helpful glossary of the more technical terms used in debates about public policy and social programs.

Comments: Though liberal in its leanings, the institute's scholarship is widely respected.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where articles may be written or edited by any user who creates a free account. It offers a vast amount of easily accessible information; the English version contained more than 3.2 million articles as of March 2009. But it can’t guarantee accuracy and sometimes has been dramatically wrong.

Individuals who write and edit articles for Wikipedia are volunteers. In theory, they bring a vast collective knowledge to bear and quickly discover and correct any biased or inaccurate entries. Advocates say this bottom-up approach produces a product that rivals traditional, top-down encyclopedias in which articles are written by individual experts chosen by professional editors. Indeed, a study in the December 15, 2005, journal Nature reported that in a sample of 42 entries on scientific topics, its experts found 162 errors in Wikipedia compared with 123 errors in Britannica. However, Britannica later challenged the Nature study as “fatally flawed” and filled with “flagrant errors.”

The weakness of Wikipedia’s anybody-can-edit policy was demonstrated dramatically when a false biographical entry on John Seigenthaler Sr., former editorial director of USA Today, went uncorrected for four months in 2005. It claimed Seigenthaler had a role in the assassinations of former President John Kennedy and his brother Robert. Those false claims were the work of a 38-year-old employee of a Nashville delivery service, Brian Chase, who had posted the libels as a joke and who later apologized to Seigenthaler. Numerous other instances of false Wikipedia entries have come to light since.

Wikipedia’s own founder, Jimmy Wales, publicly cautions students against citing it as an authoritative source. In June 2006, at a conference sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, he said that he gets about 10 e-mails a week saying, “Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia.” Wales said those comments make him think to himself: “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

Wikipedia is “pretty good,” Wales said, “but you have to be careful with it. It’s good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is.”

Comments: Wikipedia is a useful resource when beginning research on an unfamiliar topic, but it's not always reliable. Information needs to be checked against original sources, but this is often difficult due to a frequent lack of footnotes.

Political Leanings: None