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Research Help: Evaluating Web Sources

Evaluating Web Sources

Good research involves more than simply identifying and finding information related to your topic. Research also involves critically evaluating the information that you find and the information sources that you use. This is true for all kinds of information and sources of information, including print sources and sources that you find on the web.

Why evaluate the information you find on the web?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when searching or browsing the web:

  • There are no editorial or quality control standards on the web.
  • Just about anyone can publish information on the web.
  • Search engines will find all different kinds of information (personal home pages, fan sites, corporate sites, government sites, etc.) 

So where should you begin when trying to assess the reliability of a website?

Try writing a bibliographic citation for the webpage you wish to evaluate. Why?

  • Writing a citation for a website will allow you to begin the process of evaluating the site.
  • If a website does not provide the information necessary to write a bibliographic citation, it may be difficult to determine the quality and reliability of the information it provides. This may be a clue that the source is not appropriate or that extra careful evaluation of its content is required.
  • If you were citing a book, you would probably be suspicious if it provided no information about the author, publisher or date of publication. The same holds true for sources found on the web.
  • You'll need to write a citation anyway if you're refering to the site in your paper!

Regardless of the citation style used (MLA, APA, etc.), a citation for a web source should provide all or most of the information listed below:

  • Author
  • Title of the document
  • Title of the project or Web site
  • Name of the editor of the project/site 
  • Date of electronic publication or latest update
  • Name of any sponsoring institution or organization
  • URL (not required for all citation styles)
  • Date of access (you provide this: the date you accessed the site)

Of course, having a complete citation for a web site is not sufficient to ensure the quality or reliability of that site.

Information that appears to be reliable may not be.

It is only by critically evaluating the content of a website that a complete assessment can be made. 

Below is a list of criteria and questions that you may want to consider when critically evaluating the content of a website. (Note that most of these same criteria and questions can be used to evaluate any information source -- not just sources from the web.) 

Website Evaluation Criteria

Authority
(author, editor, sponsoring institution)

Who wrote or supplied the information to the Website?

What are the author's qualifications? 

Is there a c.v. or list of publications provided?

Is the content of the site peer reviewed? Is there an editor?

Point of View/ Objectivity/ Bias 
(author, editor, sponsoring institution)

Is the author arguing for or defending a particular idea or thesis? Expressing opinions? 

Is the author a member of an institution, organization, school of thought, political party...?

Are all sides of the issue addressed and discussed? 

Is there an introduction or "about this site" section in which clues about point of view can be derived?

What else has the author published?

Does the site contain advertisements? How might these influence the site's content?

Purpose

What is the purpose of the site? Is the site intended to inform? Entertain? Influence? Satirize?

Is the purpose clearly stated or can it be derived from the introduction or contents list?

Audience

Who is the intended audience? 

What is the intellectual level of the information? Is it aimed at beginners or specialists?

Scope/ Coverage 

How broad/narrow is the focus of the document?

If broad, does it provide sufficient detail for your purposes?

If narrow, is it too specific, too specialized?

Is it part of a larger work? 

Does the work cover the appropriate time period(s)?

Accuracy/ Quality of the Writing

Can the accuracy of the information be verified in another source? 

Are any sources cited? Are they relevant? Reliable?

Is the document well written? Well edited?

Relevance 

Is the information relevant/ important? Does it help further knowledge within the field?

How does it compare to other sources? 

Is the information relevant to your specific information need? 

Is it the best source available for your purposes? 

Timeliness/ Currency

Is there a date of publication? Date of most recent update? 

Is there a bibliography or list of works cited? Are any recent sources cited? 

Links

Are links to similar or related sites provided? Do they work? 

Does the site rely heavily on links or on original content?

URL 
(.com; .ca; .edu; .gov...)

What is the domain? Is it an educational site? Corporate site? Government site...?

A few more things to remember:

  • No one search engine will find everything on the web.
  • Every search engine works a little differently.
  • Search results will differ from one search engine to another (and so will the ranking of search results).

Sometimes, a single search engine is all you need. If you're looking for a univeristy's website, for example, you can probably find the site you're looking for by using a single search engine.

However, if you're looking for information about a person, a theoretical concept, interpretations of a work of art, etc., you'll probably want to try searching more than one search engine.

Also, keep in mind that "relevance" as determined by the ranking of search results in a search engine may not match your understanding or definition of "relevance." For example, the popularity of any given page can play a role in the ranking of search results on some search engines, but the popularity of a page may not necessarily be a good indication that the page is relevant for your purposes.

See the Internet Search Engines and Directories page for links to general and specialized search engines, blog search engines, and more.

A final note about scholarly information:

Although there is an increasing number of open-access, peer-review journals accessible for free on the web, remember that much scholarly information is still published in books and journals that cannot be accessed simply by using a Web search engine.

In short, if you rely solely on a search engine for your research, you will be overlooking many of the key scholarly resources availabe in library collections and library databases.

For more information, try consulting other guides to the evaluation of Web sources or Ask a Librarian.

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Last updated 19 May 2011