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Evaluating Online Resources 


Sites on the Internet vary in quality. It can be difficult to judge which sources are reliable and which are not trustworthy. Before you even consider using content from those sites in your research, think about your (or your professor's) requirements for the quality and reliability of your information. Go beyond what a site looks like, and don't let technology camouflage poor content. 
 

  • Bottom Line: While there is a good deal of useful information on the Web, it is not peer-reviewed, often not updated, and frequently inaccurate. If you have any doubts about the site's integrity, then you should reconsider using the Website in your research.

 

 Check List: Authority  |  Accuracy  |  Time  |  Coverage  |  Format

 

Authority

Determining the authority of any site is vital if you plan to use it for research purposes. This is because the Internet is a self-publishing medium - meaning anyone can create a website. There is no sort of editorial review process as there is for books and journal articles. Check directory listings for organizations and associations to verify the legitimacy, or the Biography Resource Center to verify the author's credentials. 

  • Who is responsible for the content of the material - an individual, organization, or company? Is there an "About Us" page?
  • Is contact information given so you can get in touch with the author or organization for clarification or more information? An e-mail address alone is not enough: is this a real place that has real contact information such as a phone number and street address? 
  • What are the author's qualifications? Does s/he list an occupation, years of experience, education? Is the author affiliated with an educational institution, non-profit organization or a company? 
  • What is the domain of the site? Is it trying to sell you a product (.com), government  (gov), organization (.org), or academic (.edu)?  Watch for a ~ in the URL - this indicates a personal page. Also look for country codes to indicate sites outside the U.S. such as widgets.com/au  (Australia).

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Accuracy

Eventually, you will come across information on the Web that is not entirely true. In addition to determining the authority of a site, you also need to determine if it is presenting accurate, reliable information.

  • Are the sources for any factual information clearly listed so they can be verified in another source? If not, it could be useful as an example of ideas from an individual, but not as a source of factual information. 
  • Is there a print equivalent version of this material which would provide a way of verifying accuracy? 
  • Are the person's [organization's] biases clearly stated? How objective is the presentation? Are editorials and opinion pieces clearly labeled as such?
  • Is there advertising? Is it clearly labeled so that it can be set apart from the informational content? Are they just trying to sell you something? Evaluating the quality of advertisers on a site can help you evaluate the authority of the contents on the site.
  • Are the charts/graphs containing statistical data clearly labeled and easy to read? Is it clearly stated where the data was gathered from?
  • Is the information free of grammatical, spelling, and other errors? These kinds of errors indicate a lack of quality control, and sometimes can produce inaccuracies in information.

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Time (Currency)

  • Are there dates on the site to indicate when the page was written; when the page was last revised; are there details about exactly when the page was posted to the Web (for example, on news sites such as USA Today, date and time of day can be important)
  • Dead links happen; but if there are too many, this could indicate lack of consistent updating.
  • Are charts/graphs, photos, surveys or annual reports clearly labeled as to date of publication?
  • Is there a searchable archive of older material if this is appropriate to this particular site?

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Coverage

  • Who is the target audience? Is it scholarly or popular? If the site contains advertising - what does this tell you about the site? 
  • Does the site present many opinions on the topic or only one? Does the site reflect the agenda of a political, religious or social group?
  • It is frequently difficult to determine the extent of coverage in Web pages. Can you tell if the site presents mostly opinions or facts? 
  • What is the overall purpose of the site? To inform? Persuade or advocate? Entertain? Sell a product? 

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Format  (Navigation)

  • Can you access the site with older browser versions? Is there a text only version so that you can still access the text if your browser can't display graphics or read frames?
  • Do you need to download free software for enhanced access before you can use the site? Is there a link to download the latest versions ( such as Acrobat Reader, Java, etc.)?
  • Can you find what you need ont this site? Is there a site index, table of contents, search box, links on all pages that return you to the home page?
  • Do you need to be a registered user even on a free site? Some businesses provide free information but do not want large numbers of casual surfers, instead preferring a smaller number of serious, repeat users.

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