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ENGL 1102 - Abbott (Online) - Spring 2018: Evaluate Websites

Evaluating Websites

The internet is a wonderful resource! There is more information available for free to you on the web today than has been available to people in the history of the world. However, not everything you find on the web can be used for academic assignments.

Knowing how to find credible information on the open web is a very important skill when you are writing a research paper! Just because something is published on a website does not mean it's true. Anyone can publish on the web. Most information on the web is not factchecked by editors. Often, opinion is presented as fact.

Searching for Web Sources

Getting Started Searching: Identify What You Need

Because of the many different websites available for you to search through, finding the information you need can be a bit daunting. It is therefore important that you begin by identifying what type of information you actually need. What sort of information are you looking for?

Specific data or facts. If you’re looking for statistics, such as health-related information, for example, your best bet is to go straight to the official website. If you’re working on a project that requires military-related information, then go to the Department of Defense’s website. This way, you’ll get information directly from the right source.

Opinion. This will depend entirely on the sort of opinion you’re looking for. Reasoned arguments from well-known thinkers and pundits can be found on news websites and similar sources. If you’re looking to survey the opinions of ordinary people, you could look through a number of blogs and websites on the topic.

General information. If you don’t have a lot of data on a particular topic you’re interested in and are as yet unclear as to where to begin, Google is your friend. Wikipedia is also a very handy resource as it functions as a quick way to find information on a number of topics. However, information in Wikipedia may not be totally credible, since anyone can edit it. 

Learn to Differentiate Between Various Types of Websites

As any frequent Internet user knows, there are many different types of websites, each with a function to fill. Here’s a quick way to understand their potential uses as reliable sources:

Official. As mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to check out the official website maintained by the government office, professional organization, hospital, or university whose information you need. When writing academic research, some professors will require students to cite only websites that use either “.gov” or “.edu”.

News. Majority of newspapers, journals, and magazines now have online versions. News channels are often available online, as well. These are definitely reliable sources, though you may have to make sure to download or screenshot the page due to frequent updates or changes.

Self-help/guides. Though many of the DIY or informative sites online cannot be used for academic research, they can still provide significant assistance for other projects. For example, a website on wine selection or home repairs can be useful, even though citing these as resources for academic work won’t be a good idea.

Social Network. Social networking sites are rarely considered reliable sources, unless you seek to add a direct quote from a user. For example, many celebrities, politicians, and other personalities now use Twitter to share information and opinion. Make sure to screenshot, as well, as changes could lead to citation difficulties later.

Commercial. A commercial or business website is not really a reliable source of information, given the potential for bias. (They're trying to sell you something!)

Personal. As with social networking sites, personal sites and blogs should not be cited as “credible” resources unless you are explicitly seeking opinions and stating them as such. It is possible to use personal sites if you are conducting an informal survey of opinion.

Make the Most of Every Resource

One thing that students often don’t realize is that even “bad” sources can be useful. You can’t cite them, true, but it’s not a good idea to just chuck it all out. Here are some ways you can utilize even the “unreliable” sources.

  • Look at the sources cited by the website. For example, a lot of professors won’t accept Wikipedia as a reliable source of information (with good reason). However, you can look at the sources cited on the Wikipedia page and follow the trail. These sources are often useful and might even be acceptable. There are Wikipedia entries that even cite peer-reviewed journal articles! If you find a citation for an academic journal article, try looking it up in GALILEO. 
  • Look for better keywords by reading through the search results. If the results turned up sites that you can’t use, don’t worry. Read them slowly and look for keywords that will help you narrow down your search. It’s a good way to find more information, especially on a topic you’re not very familiar with.

This well-written search advice was heavily adapted from the following source.

Evaluating Your Web Sources

Currency: the timeliness of the information

  • When was the information published or posted?
  • Has the information been revised or updated?
  • Is the information current or out-of date for your topic?
  • Are the links functional?

Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs

  • Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
  • Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining this is one you will use?
  • Would you be comfortable using this source for a research paper?

Authority: the source of the information

  • Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
  • Are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations given?
  • What are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations given?
  • What are the author's qualifications to write on the topic?
  • Is there contact information, such as a publisher or e-mail address?
  • Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source?  Examples: .com (commercial), .edu (educational), .gov (U.S. government), .org (nonprofit organization), or .net (network)

Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content

  • Where does the information come from?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
  • Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
  • Does the language or tone seem biased and free of emotion?
  • Are there spelling, grammar, or other typographical errors?

Purpose: the reason the information exists

  • What is the purpose of the information? to inform? teach? sell? entertain? persuade?
  • Do the authors/sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear?
  • Is the information fact? opinion? propaganda?
  • Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
  • Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases?

By scoring each category on a scale from 1 to 10 (1 = worst, 10=best possible) you can give each site a grade on a 50 point scale for how high-quality it is!

45 - 50 Excellent | 40 - 44 Good | 35 - 39 Average | 30 - 34 Borderline Acceptable | Below 30 - Unacceptable

Note: the CRAAP test was developed by librarians at CSU Chico.

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