Evaluating information is a critical part of doing research, especially when you're looking at web pages. Below are some links to web sites that provide pointers on how to evaluate internet resources. It’s sometimes difficult to know if the information you find on a website is trustworthy. To determine a source’s authority, you need to find as much of the following information about the site as you can, and then make a judgment call:
Can you find the name of the person who authored the website? Does the author have expertise in the area they are writing? If the website is authored anonymously, what does that mean about the information you find? Sometimes, as in the case with AP articles and documents written by organizations, an individual name may not be present. In this case, you should be able to easily identify the group, company or organization that authored the website.
If the site was authored by an individual, is the author affiliated with an organization? Is the organization reputable? Have you heard of them? If not, can you find more information about the organization? If you can’t find anything else out about the organization, what does that mean about the information you find?
Everything has a bias, and biases are not always negative. It is important to recognize what bias your information has, however. In order to get a balanced overview of your topic, try to find sources with different biases. There may be two or more sides to the story. Be aware of the different biases you find, and incorporate them into your understanding of the information you collect.
When you’re doing research for a class, your instructors expect you to find authoritative information. Sources such as encyclopedias, books published by reputable publishing houses, articles from edited magazines & journals, and websites published by experts in the field are all considered authoritative. When you’re looking at websites, it’s a good idea to triangulate your source with an authoritative source.
Triangulation is a concept that is used in journalism and other research-heavy fields. When a journalist is researching an idea, before she reports any claims she discovers as being “substantiated,” she will try to find the same claim from three unrelated sources. That way, if one of the sources has misinformation she can catch the mistake before she reports it as the truth.
You can use this concept in your own research. For example, if you find an article on Wikipedia, see if you can find the same information in at least one of the library’s print encyclopedias. Wikipedia can be changed by anyone, and sometimes false information can stay on the site for a while until someone comes along to fix it. Print encyclopedias (or eBooks) are edited very carefully for errors before they’re printed. If you can’t find an article from a print encyclopedia on your topic, try to find a book or journal article in one of the library databases.
Don’t forget to keep track of the URL of the website and the date you looked at it. You might also want to print out a few relevant pages. Because websites can change quickly or even disappear entirely, it’s up to you to keep careful track of what information you found and where you found it. It’s all part of being a conscientious and ethical information user!
How current is this source? Has the content been modified recently? Has the site been sitting around gathering dust for a few years? If the site hasn’t been modified recently, try to decide if it should have been updated recently in order to stay current with the most up-to-date thinking on the topic.