Please see my comments regarding the evaluation of print sources of information.
Find the gems amongst all the junk!
Putting information on the web is easy, cheap, unregulated and unmonitored!!!!
There are some real ‘dogs’ out there, but there’s also great treasure. The burden is on you to establish the authorship, timeliness, rationale and accuracy of information on the web.
There are no editors on the web to proofread, ‘send back’ or reject information until it meets publishing house standards. If you want to use the web for serious research you need to cultivate the habit of questioning everything you find with critical thinking.
Skilllfully evaluating a website requires you to do two things at once:
- Train your mind to think critically, even suspiciously. Ask yourself how much a website can be trusted.
- Use a series of techniques (questions) that help you quickly find out what you need to know about websites
Authority – The Who
Web pages are all created with a purpose in mind by some person, entity or agency. They do not simply ‘grow organically’. You should look for someone/organisation that claims accountability and responsibility for the content.
- Who created the website – a well known organisation or an individual?
- Does the organisation have an ‘about us’ ‘our philosophy’, ‘background’, ‘biography’ section?
- Is there an author?
- Is the author qualified? What are his/her credentials? Does he/she have sufficient authority to speak on the subject? Be aware that the page may be written by a hobbyist, self-proclaimed expert or enthusiast.
- Can you contact the author – via email, address, phone?
- Is there a sponsor? Is the sponsor reputable?
- Is it someone’s personal page? Personal pages are not ‘bad’, but you need to evaluate the author very carefully. For personal pages, there is no publisher/organisation or domain owner vouching for the information on the page.
- Do you know the difference between an author and a webmaster?
- Know who’s publishing the information:
Government site – .ie or other country code or .gov
Education site – .edu
Commercial organisation – .com
Non-profit organisation – .org
Personal – look for a personal name
Currency – The When
Is the page dated? Is there ‘last updated’ information?
Is the information current? This is especially important if using time-sensitive financial data. Undated factual or statistical information is useless.
Are there ‘dead’ links?
Is there a difference between the date the information was created and the date the website was last updated?
Objectivity – The Why
Anyone can put anything on the web for pennies in just a few minutes. It is up to you to distinguish between the reliable and the questionable. You should expect the same degree of authority and reliability from a website as you would a reputable print source such as an encyclopedia.
What is the purpose of the site? Those doing history and political essays should be aware of propaganda, bias and the existence of hate sites.
Why was it produced? – to sell, persuade, provide a service, inform/educate, entertain?
Think of the ‘tone’ of the page – humorous, a parody, overblown, argumentative, exaggerated, outrageous photographs. It is easy to be fooled, and this can make you look foolish in turn.
How detailed is the information?
Are there ads?
Is it objective? (see ‘Accuracy’)
Could the information you are about to use be distorted, exaggerated or a hoax?
Are multiple/varying viewpoints represented?
Do the pictures help explain the text?
What does the site do to grab your attention (are there gimmicks)?
Coverage – The How
How does the site look? Professional or badly put together?
Is it well written, free from grammar and spelling mistakes?
Is it easy to navigate?
Is it age-appropriate?
Accuracy – The What
In research work, the credibility of most writings is proven through footnotes or other means of revealing the sources of information. Saying what you believe without documentation is not much better than expressing an opinion. An exception is journalism from highly reputable newspapers, but these are not scholarly.
Is the information reliable? Have I used these criteria to evaluate the site?
Does it have information that I know is wrong?
Is it consistent with/corroborate other known reliable sources?
Are opinions voiced as if they are facts? Does the author back up his opinions with facts and references?
Does the site offer links to other pages on the same topic? Do they offer differing viewpoints? This is the author’s invitation asking you to (favourably) compare his/her site to others’.
Does it contain a bibliography of print resources, does it cite journal articles and other relevant sources?
Is it a primary or secondary source of information?
If it is an article from a reputable journal does it have a copyright statement and permission to reprint?
Can you get the same information elsewhere from other reliable sources eg an encyclopedia, database etc?
Does it all add up?
Step back and think about all you have learned about the page. Listen to your gut reaction. If you have doubts ask a Librarian or your teacher.
Be aware of the possibility that you could be the victim of irony, spoof, fraud or other falsehoods
Ask yourself if the web is truly the best place to find the resources you need for your research.