The Fishscale of Academicness

The Fishscale of Academicness by Alke Gröppel-Wegener and Geoff Walton.

Illustrations are by Josh Filhol.


Alke Gröppel-Wegener, A. and Walton, G. (2013). The Fishscale of Academicness. In: Walsh, A. and Coonan, E. eds. (2013). Only Connect … Discovery pathways, library explorations, and the information adventure. Huddersfield: Innovative Libraries, pp. 15-38.


Introduction: navigating the ocean and getting your feet wet

Imagine every secondary source you encounter is a sea creature!

The Fishscale of Academicness, inspired by the work of Dr Claire Penketh, is a visual learning idea employed to engage undergraduate students in questioning the provenance of information sources. This is an intellectual endeavour which is often absent from student researchers' academic practice (Hepworth and Walton, 2009). Developed by Dr Alke Gröppel-Wegener, the activities linked to theFishscale concept aim to reduce the over-reliance on non-peer reviewed internet-based information for literature review purposes. This has been called information discernment (Walton and Hepworth, 2013) or digital judgement (Bartlett and Miller, 2011). This work was originally used with art, media and design students, who are almost by definition visual learners, but we believe this approach can be used for all learners in any context.

This chapter is based on a booklet explaining the Fishscale concept, and looks at the Fishscale from two perspectives – the view a student would have and a meta-level putting it into a larger theoretical context as a teaching activity. Therefore, it can be read on two levels: on the one hand it aims to introduce you, the reader, to the Fishscale concept, through clear and engaging visuals and amusing texts. On the other we have included a commentary that adds the ‘academic’ perspective which, in turn, enables you as learning facilitator to use the Fishscale concept to enable students to become information literate. So, look out for this text and the pictures, if you want to simply know about the concept, and this text if you are interested in the academic perspective.

Of course as this chapter is confined to the pages of a book, albeit an electronic one, this is only an approximation of the journey of a learner. Within the context of teaching this concept has been used to introduce students to information discernment via a lecture explaining the idea. This has then been developed further by asking the students to analyse in small groups short pieces of provided sources, to determine which sea creature they would be and explain why to the rest of the group. This prompts a discussion of where the sources would be in relation to each other on a scale of academic depth – which ones are more ‘academic’ sources than others. The students are then challenged to apply this strategy of information discernment to every source they include in their written assignments. Initial testing has shown that the students who had this input went on to use sources of a higher quality than in previous years.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves … let’s get started at the beginning:

Information these days seems to be everywhere. But rather than making research easier, this has made it harder, because when doing research you don’t just have to find any information, you have to find the right information.

Shark fin

Unfortunately, information doesn’t appear as a landscape, where you can see important landmarks because they rise like mountain tops.

Rather it can seem like a sea, and when you are looking for evidence to back up your research, it can be difficult to figure out what exactly goes on below the surface.

So sometimes it can feel like there is just you – on a makeshift raft – alone in a seemingly endless ocean of information.

Information literacy: launching the fishing boat

Information literacy is not a subject per se but a thinking skills framework which empowers learners to engage with information of any kind and which should be woven into the fabric of the subject being taught. In short, it is highly context-specific.  There are many well-established models of information literacy in existence, for example those of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), the Australia & New Zealand Institute for Information Literacy (ANZIIL) and the Society for College and New University Libraries (SCONUL) ‘Seven Pillars’  together with some relatively new ones, for example A New Curriculum for Information Literacy (ANCIL). They all exhibit a set of core similarities which focus on the complex set of skills that learners need to find, evaluate and use information appropriately (Walton, 2009). In tandem, research done into inquiry-based learning indicates that for learning and teaching interventions to be successful they require a shift from teaching specific resources to facilitating the ability to use a set of critical thinking skills to engage with information (Hampton-Reeves et al., 2009). 

Our argument, which is corroborated by work done by Levy and Petrulis (2007), is that information literacy is a fundamental building block of inquiry-based learning. Accompanied with the right kind of pedagogical intervention students’ behaviours can be changed. For example, Balusek and Oliver (2012) found that by using a scale, students were able to effectively evaluate sources and correctly identify peer reviewed sources. The scale helped students distinguish between various types of sources and they found that these findings were consistent across semesters. Walton and Hepworth (2011) found that by using online discourse students can construct their own credible evaluation criteria checklist to check web-based resources and that there was evidence that students were transferring this skill into other modules.

There is wide-ranging evidence of low levels of information literacy in students attending higher education. Metzger et al. (2003) and Wiley et al. (2009) note that individuals may have trouble determining how to assess the credibility of online information.  Looking at studies in the workplace in particular, Feldman (2004) reported that workers found only 50% of the information they were looking for. Workers spend 15% of their time duplicating knowledge that already exists. Breivik and Gee (2006) found that only 20% of government, 29% of commerce, 41% of news and 28% of health professionals report that they ‘always’ find the information they want. They estimated that undergraduates are searching approximately 0.03% of the web.

When students evaluate internet sources it has been found that they do so casually and without seeking additional verification of the information (Graham and Metaxas, 2003; Grimes and Boening, 2001; Wiley et al., 2009). In Metzger’s study (2007) most participants indicated that they used these evaluation criteria ‘rarely’ or ‘occasionally’. They also noted that they were likely to use the criteria of currency, comprehensiveness, and objectivity most often, although still only occasionally, when evaluating websites. Participants reported that they checked the author’s identity, qualifications, and contact information least often. A study on young people’s information behaviour (UCL, 2008 – also known as the ‘CIBER Report’) showed that pre-university students are unable to construct effective searches and use the narrowest of criteria to evaluate their newly-found information. They also found that users pay ‘little regard to the document content’ and that the ‘speed of young people’s web searching indicates that little time is spent in evaluating information, either for relevance, accuracy or authority…’. Finally, ‘many teenagers thought that if a site was indexed on Yahoo then it had to be authoritative’ (UCL, 2008). Hemig (2008, p.349) notes that artists, in particular, ‘frequently cannot evaluate information that is given to them’.

Clearly there are links between the searches students do while at university and their future ability to find the right information in their subsequent workplaces. Is information literacy part of the solution of preparing our graduates for this very real workplace skill?

There are different ways to explore this endless ocean of information.

The first might be to surf. Websurfing, just as surfing the waves on the ocean, is skimming along on the surface: it allows you to cover a lot of ground, but is not in-depth.

Riding a Wave

It gets exciting once you get immersed in the material, like catching a wavetunnel and riding it for as long as you can – that is getting into the flow of research.

But there is also a chance that you could drown in a tsunami of information.

However, you won’t necessarily be able to tell how deep the ocean is by skimming its top, for that you need to explore it in more depth

 – so imagine that each of the sources you find

is a sea creature, grab a snorkel

and have a closer look!

person with snorkel

What comes out of a ‘Google trawl’ can be all kinds of sea creatures – some from the shallows and some living in very deep waters.

fish tumbling from a net

The content here is often something that is predetermined through your search, and specifically the keywords you use. If you are typing your keywords into a search engine, lots of sources get spewed out.

However, they are usually ordered by popularity, rather than the criteria you need as an academic researcher. So you have to make your own decision as to whether the source is any good for your context – and for that you have to look at the type of source you have found.


And while at the beginning you have to cast your net wide to see what sort of sea creatures you are turning up, once you get into finding actual sources for your work, you need to dive deeper, to cast a line rather than trawl with a net. You want to find specific, not general, information and evidence.

Before we continue on our journey, we will take a moment to describe our information literacy theoretical definition and its accompanying model.  We shall avoid rehashing all of the arguments in support of this model but perhaps should take a moment to indicate the underpinning research which helped to articulate and shape the model. Chief among this is the work by Walton, Barker, Hepworth and Stephens (2007a and b); Walton (2009); Walton (2010); Walton and Hepworth (2011); Cleland and Walton (2012); Walton and Hepworth (2013). 

Our position on learning aligns with that of Walton and Cleland (2013) who state that:

[l]earning involves many things: a context such as university which provides a framework of roles, e.g. student and tutor, and associated norms, such as attending seminars and completing assignments; cognitive processes, such as thinking about something and possibly analysing and applying it; thinking about that analysis – reflection or metacognition; having feelings about the process, such as anxiety; and possibly changing behaviour as a result of all this, for example being able to make balanced judgements about a piece of information and use it appropriately in a given context. (Walton and Cleland, 2013, p.22)

In addition, because visual metaphor is central to the Fishcale approach, we have found it useful to incorporate the work of Gardner (1993) who notes that ‘visual’ (or more correctly ‘visual-spatial’) learners prefer using images, maps and pictures to organise and communicate information and enjoy drawing. These learners memorise by visual association, have trouble remembering verbal instructions and are good readers. Interestingly, this has strong parallels with the verbaliser/imager cognitive style continuum developed by Riding and Cheema (1991).  On this continuum individuals are regarded as being located towards one end (imager) or the other (verbaliser)  and will tend to perform better in tasks that require the associated form of information representation in memory - that is, visual or verbal (Ford, 2004). Unsurprisingly, imagers tend to prefer visually orientated information sources. Hemig (2008), in his overview of the information-seeking behaviour of artists, states that they generally favour the visual over the verbal. However, he also notes that ‘textual content of print resources is more significant than previous studies suggest’ (Hemig, 2008, p.349). Whilst artists are unsurprisingly visual in their learning style, therefore, they also have a significant need for textual material for their work and study. In other words, even the most visual of learners needs to engage with text at some point.

It is these issues that the Fishscale attempts to address.

The theory of information literacy which underpins our approach holds that becoming information literate appears to be about an individual completing a task in a given context, which frames their roles and norms (e.g., a student required to complete an assignment). This context leads to the interaction with sources (e.g. databases, e-journals, books, e-books, peers, tutors and other individuals). This interaction is defined by three ‘cognitive spheres’: find/access/locate; evaluate/discern/judge; use/communicate/produce. Each ‘sphere’ triggers an individual’s  behavioural, cognitive, metacognitive and affective states.  It is this interplay which determines the level of new knowledge learnt (or produced or both) and the degree of changed behaviour (i.e., level of information literacy) exhibited.

All three ‘cognitive spheres’ appear in the Fishscale approach although, as you will see below, it is on information discernment that the intervention concentrates most.

When you are working with secondary sources, one of the things you have to always take into account is their provenance: Is this a good academic source? How do you know it is reliable?

There are different types of sources and some of them you should really not use as academic evidence, because they may be biased, too simplistic or plain wrong.
Whenever you are doing a literature review, this should always be in your mind - and if you are marked on the piece of research you are working on, the quality of the sources will be taken into account.

A good way of visualising this is through thinking of the research as being an ocean full of sources that are living at different depths ...

 representation of different depth of water

the more towards the surface they dwell, the ‘shallower’ the sources are ... the further down they are, the ‘deeper’ and more theoretical they are.

To help you determine where a source belongs,ask yourself:

If this source was a sea creature, what would it be like – and why?

Would it be bright and friendly, because it has lots of pictures in it and is easy to understand?


Grey shark with dangerous teeth

Would it be grey and with dangerous teeth,

because it has no illustrations and uses unfamiliar words?



Would it be fat, because it gives

you a lot of information on

a very specific topic?

fat fish


Would it be flat, because it mentions a lot of areas, but none of them in any depths?


Puffed up fish

Would it be puffed up, because it

seems a bit pompous and

without real point?


Would it be straight, because the information is presented in a clear way, possibly chronologically?


Would it be curled up,

because the information

is presented in a roundabout way?

curled fish

Now that you know what your individual sources look like as sea creatures, order them onto a scale of their ‘academic-ness’ – are they shallow or deep? Consider what audience they were written for, their writing style and look out for clues of academic writing – referencing, footnotes, indexes, bibliographies or reference lists.

Here are some examples to get you started:


Children’s books are friendly, bold, and roam very much on the surface.

Would it be curled up,

because the information

is presented in a roundabout way?

friendly fish



Personal opinion pieces, such as blog posts, reviews or letters

to the editor are usually just that: personal.
That makes them less academic, because they are subjective.
They also are usually short and not linked, like one in a swarm of little fish.

Or they are like goldfish, little gems of amazement, but not really that substantial.


Newspaper articles are a good example of texts written for a general audience. If published in a reputable newspaper they are

researched well, but they will probably show some bias.
They make far reaching links and put their subjects

into a larger context, but usually stop short of real academic

depth as they are aimed at non-experts.



Introductory academic texts, like Readers, are a good starting point, because they will get you familiar with the key ideas and debates in the field, its jargon and probably also introduce notable authors.
They tend to be flat in that they usually cover only an insight into a field of work. Some do that by concentrating on one particular issue, so they could be seen as flat horizontally.

Others give a brief introduction to a lot of issues, but don’t go into much detail for each of them. In a way they are cutting through the strata of information and could be imagined as horizontally striped.

Academic overviews can take the form of a quite linear narrative, for example showing a chronological order of events – one happening after the other.
They could also be centred around a main focus, but branching into a few aspects that are discussed in detail.

spiky fish

fish made of smaller fish

Academic texts can be quite substantial and they can seem quite a slow read – particularly if you are not used to reading at this level of depth
– but keep in mind that you don’t have to tackle a whole book in one sitting: rather, you could break it up into sections and summarise them in your own words – breaking down a big scary source into smaller, more easily digestible sea creatures ...

Academic texts that are found in journals tend to be grouped around the theme of the journal, or possibly even a special issue. Reading them can be quite daunting. If a journal is peer-reviewed that is a sign of academic depth, and these texts are often written for the expert rather than the novice.
Going straight to the article might have a sting in the tail, rather pay attention to the ‘safer’ part of the abstract and introduction to figure out whether this text is actually going to be useful for you before you get frustrated tackling it - only to realise that it wasn’t that useful in the first place.


Some academic texts might seem a bit overcomplicated - curly rather than straightforward.

Overall, academic texts should be challenging. They have teeth, which means that there should be a bit of a struggle, but getting to grips with them will be worth it in the end, because they contain good evidence.

girl and shark face to snout

You might also come across texts that are just too weird. They might have developed at too deep a level to make sense to a non-expert; PhD or post-doctoral work can seem that way when you are starting out in academia.
Don’t get frustrated by them: if you have given it a go, carefully re-reading sections and looking up words that you don’t understand, maybe they do live out of your depth for now.
Go ‘back up’ to find some introductory sources, which should help you establish the ideas, debates and perspectives and get you familiar with the jargon, and maybe later in your academic career you can go back down, when tackling a source in the deepest academic abyss will have become easier.


Learning to dive: understanding the information literacy and information behaviour processes involved in the Fishscale

Getting to know your fish - information discernment

The previous section forms the major part of the Fishscale narrative and focuses on the experiential-learning process which enables undergraduate students to become, via the use of visual metaphor, effective in information discernment. Walton and Hepworth (2013, p.55) define information discernment as “the ability to use higher order thinking skills in order to make sound and complex judgements regarding a range of text-based materials”. In information behaviour terms (as illustrated by Walton and Hepworth, 2011), when using the Fishscale, students engage cognitively in a context-specific task defined by the roles and norms of their course, which allows them to move from an affective state of uncertainty regarding the information they are engaging with to a point of relative certainty. The use of visual metaphor not only enables students to engage in the cognitive processes of comprehending and analysing the information source (as defined by Bloom et al., 1954) in a meaningful way but also, through metacognition, triggers the act of reflection on its nature. In this way it helps the student to produce new meaning, and hence new knowledge, about the source in question.

By posing a series of questions which use highly descriptive words to create a visual image of the text-based information source, this concept enables the learner to think of the (secondary) source in a new and amusing way and so may change their affective state in a positive way. In so doing what can be a highly negative and stressful process – evaluating academic information sources – changes into the amusing and enjoyable task of visualising those sources as a certain kind of fish or sea creature. The added group activity of physically designing/drawing those creatures then makes the process of questioning provenance even more memorable. The questions suggested offer different ways of visualising the sources to make it easier to make judgements about them: e.g. would a resource with lots of information be fat? Is it curled up like a sea horse because the information is presented less clearly than a more straightforward narrative, which would be represented as a straight fish like an eel? The Fishscale enables the reader to make a series of judgements using metaphor to create a way of visualising the analysis.

The series of examples given also enable the reader to create a mental and visual hierarchy of the sources in question through the added dimension of the notion of depth. Thus the more scholarly the resource, the ‘deeper’ its Fishscalemetaphor lives in the ocean, while the less credible resources live in the ‘shallows’. Again, this takes the abstract notion of the ‘academic’ and allows students to visualise it, ordering a number of sources on a scale in order to see them in relation to one other.

The Fishscale narrative spends some time giving examples of visual metaphor which enable learners to apply their analysis to the source, reflect on the result and devise a hierarchy of resources to use in their assignments. Almost every conceivable text or resource that a first-year student would be exposed to is given in the narrative, which provides a clear set of templates for learners to work with. This enables them to understand the character of a source, interact with it and use it with other sources to synthesise into their assignment.

At the beginning of a research project,
you probably have to cast your net wide, and establish your focus by looking at introductory sources; but once you have come up with your focus, a research question and key words for a literature search, you will be able to cast a line at the academic depth that you want to dive down to.


Casting your net - finding information

Although we recognise that artists in particular are resistant to library instruction, preferring open browsing and mediation from experts (Hemig, 2008), we also subscribe to the view (corroborated by empirical research in Walton and Hepworth, 2011; 2013) that information behaviour can be changed and information literacy enhanced.

When students can visualise what information they need for their assignments, they can become more effective searchers.  The metaphor of fishing is extended in the sense of casting one’s net wide, so the search is as broad as possible but focused by using the most appropriate keywords. Alternatively, their search can be very focused by casting a line (keyword search string perhaps) into the depths.

long thin fish

Keep in mind when you are writing up your own project that this work could also be seen as a sea creature, and that there are types you should avoid:
Avoid giving a collection of facts that are not really linked. A paragraph on something interesting you learned followed by another paragraph on something interesting you learned is only interesting if you can properly link those paragraphs in a meaningful way.

chunky fish

You should usually try not to write an essay that is just a list of things one coming after the other. While this might work when you are required to write something based on a chronological structure, it usually ends up being a summary and shows little of your own skills of analysis.

smily faced sea creature

While of course you want to show off all the reading that you have done, don’t be tempted to just make your writing about quoting the exotic seeming things that you have read, an essay full of quotes, while proving that you have done some research, does not show your skills at highlighting what is important in what you have found out and why that is important.

 Hooks dangling from fish

What you should be aiming for is a well-rounded piece of research that has a strong focus.


What’s on the menu? Using information

The Fishscale ends by giving advice on using information and provides a template for sharing knowledge. It very clearly states the need to avoid listing but rather to synthesise knowledge from found sources into a new whole. In addition, the notion of reflecting on work done is promoted, which is a useful means for securing learning. In this way the student is more likely to create new knowledge - not necessarily ground-breaking but new to him or her - which stretches beyond the mundane to something worthwhile and interesting.

Conclusion: back to dry land

We are not suggesting that this form of pedagogical intervention using visual metaphor will turn everyone into outstanding discerners of information, but we do believe it will help many, especially those who tend to have a more visual learning style. This approach also supports the need to use a variety of teaching and learning interventions to engage as many learners as possible, whatever their learning style. What makes this work so well is, as this analysis demonstrates, that the Fishscale not only engages many of the cognitive states required to enhance learning but also the metacognitive and affective states, which means it is ultimately more likely to succeed. The Fishscale is an addition to, not a replacement for, the rich variety of pedagogical interventions that educators, including librarians, use to enable learners to gain the attributes required to become information literate.

We are continuing our research on the Fishscale to determine whether it transfers to different setting and subjects, which is going to be exciting and interesting. All we can say is: watch this space!


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angler fish

Alke Gröppel-Wegener, A. and Walton, G. (2013). The Fishscale of Academicness. In: Walsh, A. and Coonan, E. eds. (2013). Only Connect … Discovery pathways, library explorations, and the information adventure. Huddersfield: Innovative Libraries, pp. 15-38.