We all use the Internet to gather information for all sorts of purposes. The information might help us with medicine and health decisions, politics and voting, finances, social decisions, or professional research among others. Our whole way of viewing the world is based on the information that we encounter, and these days a lot of information comes from the Internet. That's why it is so important to evaluate the information that you find!
Of course, evaluating information is also good for your assignments. Plus, it will make your research better, strengthen your arguments and get you a better grade.
Keep in mind that, while Google is a great search engine, there are others out there. Plus, there probably are more appropriate resources to use such as library databases or library catalogs, that cover mainly articles or books. Different search engines work in different ways and will return different results. You'll probably never be able to look at all of the results on a given topic, although only looking at the first few results on a given search won't give you a good representation of the research that has been done on your topic.
1. WHO WROTE IT?
When you're looking at a website, first ask yourself: "Who wrote this information?" Knowing about the author will help you to analyze the information that you've found, and use it more effectively.
- Is the author an expert on this topic? Are credentials provided to demonstrate expertise or knowledge of the subject?
- What can you gather about the author’s background?
- What institutions or organizations is the author affiliated?
- Is the publisher reputable?
- Is there any contact information provided about the author or publisher?
2. MOTIVATION AND BIAS
Consider the type of site that the information comes from. When you know more about potential motivations or biases associated with the site, think about how these might affect the information that you're viewing.
- Is the information source supported by a group, organization or company? What kind of reputation do each have?
- What does the author or group stand to gain by convincing others of its points?
- Is the author very opinionated, biased or neutral on the topic?
- Is the information likely to have been reviewed by others before being published?
- Who is the intended audience?
3. EVIDENCE AND RELIABILITY
Ask what sort of evidence the author provides for the points that he or she is trying to make. The more verifiable evidence that a resource uses, the more likely that the information used is accurate.
- Does the resource list citations or somehow indicate the sources of information?
- Does it rely on evidence from many different sources or just a couple?
- Is first-hand research included? If so, what sources or methods did the author use to gather the information or data? And were the methods accurate and dependable?
- Is it refereed/peer-reviewed or did just a staff editor review it? (Peer-review means a scholar or researcher in the related field has reviewed it before publication.)
- Is it cited by other researchers (using Scopus, Google Scholar, or some other citation resources)?
- Is the text well-written, or does it contain grammatical, spelling or typographical errors?
- Is it written in the language of the discipline or for a general audience?
- Are links to other resources current or broken? And are pages finished or still under construction?
Finally, consider when this information was published or last updated. People view different topics differently and talk about them in different ways at different times. Make sure that the resource you're viewing is either up-to-date or published at a time that is relevant to the topic that you're studying.
- Are the facts, such as statistics, current to your topic? Are they out-of-date?
- Is there a historical perspective that would be beneficial from using older facts?
Here are some tips about how to find information that will allow you to evaluate resources.
- For web sites, tildes (e.g. /~jsmith) or percent signs (e.g. /%jsmith) followed by personal names usually indicate personal sites.
- Shortening the URL to find the homepage might provide information.
Example: http://hyperreal.org/~mpesce/ctnsinterview.html >> http://hyperreal.org
- Search outside of the resource for the author's name (try other authors listed in the order they appear) or organizations to see what others have said about them. This will give you a broader sense of an author's or organization's reputation and background.
- Be skeptical and cautious about new sources of information and their origins.
- Domain extension at the end of the URL can also provide information:
- Educational or governmental sites (.edu) are more likely to provide more objective information.
- Schools, open-source projects, organizations, communities, and some for-profit entities (.org) often provide useful information, but may be pushing an agenda, be biased, or are inaccurate.
- Commercial sites (.com) are usually motivated to make money and are frequently biased.
You might find that resources provided by your library can be really helpful, and you can access many of these resources online through your library's website.