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The cognitive authority of user-generated health information in an online forum for girls and young women

Noora Hirvonen (University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland)
Alisa Tirroniemi (University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland)
Terttu Kortelainen (University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 8 October 2018

Issue publication date: 7 January 2019




The purpose of this paper is to examine the role of one particular online discussion forum as a potentially authoritative health information source for its users. The concept of cognitive authority is used as a starting point for understanding information evaluation in this context. The focus is placed on the types of information users seek for from this forum, the ways they assess the credibility of information obtained, and their views on the impact of this information.


The empirical data were collected with a questionnaire survey from the users of a Finnish online forum for girls and young women (n=290). The data were analyzed qualitatively with content analytic techniques and quantitatively by using descriptive analysis.


The forum was found to offer girls and young women the possibility to receive health information from peers. It was viewed as an appropriate source for experiential rather than factual health information and used to find information on sexuality, bodily functions and diets, for example. Author-related cues, argumentation and tone, veracity and verification were recognized as means to evaluate information credibility. Credibility evaluation was found to be linked with conceptions of the forum and the type of information sought. A share of the respondents recognized the information obtained to have influence on their thinking or behavior.


Based on the findings, it can be argued that the members of the online forum – individually or collectively – can act as cognitive authorities for other users. The findings cannot be generalized beyond this online forum, to Finnish girls or young women, or even the users of the online forum. However, they provide insights into the ways young people evaluate user-generated information in a particular online setting and domain of knowledge and as such contribute to research on cognitive authority, credibility evaluation and information literacy.



The authors would like to thank the reviewers as well as Professor Maija-Leena Huotari and PhD Laura Palmgren-Neuvonen from the “Cognitive Authorities in Everyday Health Information Environments of Young People (CogAHealth)” project, for their insightful comments, which were of great help in revising the manuscript. The study was funded by the Academy of Finland (Grant No. 299112).


Hirvonen, N., Tirroniemi, A. and Kortelainen, T. (2019), "The cognitive authority of user-generated health information in an online forum for girls and young women", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 75 No. 1, pp. 78-98.



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