Practically anyone can publish information on the web. There is no mandatory editorial review process and the economic and technical barriers to web publishing are low. All you need is a basic knowledge of web page creation and access to a web server. Thus, information on the web ranges widely in quality. Excellent research may lie just one click away from sites that disseminate poor scholarship, hidden agendas, outdated information, pranks, or malicious hoaxes. This guide teaches you how to filter out the sites that will detract from your research efforts.
Who wrote the document?
Look for the author’s name at the top or bottom of the page. Remember that there is often a difference between the author of a page’s content and the Webmaster of a site. If you can’t find an author, look for a link to an organization and/or a copyright notice.
Does the author have the necessary credentials to write about the subject?
Can you find any biographical information about the author? Is there any information about the author’s affiliation or sponsor? Look for an “About Us” or a “Who We Are” link. Check that the text follows basic rules of grammar, spelling, and composition.
Are the credentials verifiable? Could they be fake?
If you have ever created a false email address or visited a chat room, you know how easy it is to hide your true identity online.
Can you contact the author?
Responsible authors will leave you a way to contact them, so they can receive feedback and be made aware of new information, errors, etc.
What does the URL (Web address) tell you about who is sponsoring the site?
Look at the last part of the domain name:
|Commercial site. There is some sort of monetary incentive behind the production of this site.|
|Educational institutions ranging from kindergarten through higher education.|
|U.S. government. Information from this domain is usually considered credible.|
|Internet Service Provider (ISP).|
|U.S military branch.|
|Organization (may be non-profit, religious, lobbying group, etc.).|
|Domain Name registries around the world|
Is there a ~ (tilde) symbol in the url? If so, this indicates that the page is in someone’s personal directory on a server. The content is probably not monitored by the domain owner, thus you should be extra cautious in your evaluation.
If you cannot determine who sponsors the site, search for the domain name in a whois registry such as AllWhoIs.
Consider the differences between the following sites, all of which appear in the results of a Google search for White House:
What is the purpose of the site or page?
Possible reasons to create websites: advertising, scholarship, opinion, information, entertainment, fandom, news, a hobby, advocacy, and satire.
Who is the intended audience?
Academic researchers, consumers, children, political extremists, friends and family members?
Consider the reading level of the site. Look for clues in the design. Are there lots of graphics, advertisements, and pop-up windows? Is the site mostly text with limited decoration?
Is the information on the website current?
Can you tell when the information was last updated? Remember that a “last updated” note on the page does not necessarily mean that the content is still current. For example, an update to a file might just correct a misspelling or a broken link.
To be sure that the information is current, compare it to other available sources. Also, check the links on the page. Watch out for a high percentage of broken links. Are the sources that the page links to current and updated regularly?
Is the author being objective or biased?
Remember that information is rarely completely neutral. Does the publishing organization or author have a stake in the information being presented? Try to determine possible commercial, philosophical, or political agendas. Are you researching acid reflux disease on a drug company’s website?
Biased information isn’t necessarily bad or unusable, but any bias must be taken into account in your analysis. Look at the facts provided in the document. Are they accurately and completely cited? What facts has the author chosen to omit?
Does the author identify his or her source material or include a bibliography?
If so, check that the sources are cited correctly. Assess the value of the source material. Is it relevant and authoritative? Do other works on the same topic use some of the same materials? Can you access any of the source material? Be wary of websites that make it difficult (or impossible) for you to trace the sources.
“Misinformation on the Internet is, and will always be, a problem. One of the attributes of the Internet — the fact that nearly anyone can publish on it — creates an environment of freedom and simultaneously an environment that lacks quality control.”
–Piper, Paul S. (2000, September). Better read that again: Web hoaxes and misinformation. Searcher, 8 (8). Accessed 2/12/04: http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/sep00/piper.htm
Paul Piper’s article is an excellent primer on the various types of misinformation on the web. The article also contains great examples and lists resources to help you identify Internet hoaxes.
Examine the following sites:
Martin Luther King
World Trade Organization
Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask
This is part of a larger tutorial — Finding Information on the Internet — put together by UC Berkley’s Teaching Library.
Evaluating the Quality of Information on the Internet
“This section of ‘The Virtual Chase’ offers a checklist for discovering quality in Web-based information, commentary on technical trickery, examples of bogus Web sites, and resources for learning more.” The Virtual Chase, sponsored by Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, LLP, is a site devoted to teaching legal professionals how to do research on the Internet.