©13 Aug 1998 copyright -
assignment may be used with attribution

Researching and Critiquing Internet Resources

Anyone, in theory, can publish on the Web; therefore, it is imperative for users of the Web to develop a critical eye to evaluate the credibility of Internet information. Developing a keen sense of the credibility of sources, based on such clues as connection of author to the subject, audience, source of publication, and documentation of supporting evidence,  can also help you evaluate print and other types of sources. In this assignment you will critique Two (2) Web sites on the same subject.  The Web sites should, ideally, have different audiences and purposes. Contrasts in audience and credibility are desirable for investigative purposes. You will write a report on this critique and post it on your course Web site. See these search engine guides (http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/how-to.htm#engines) to search for the sites and these guides to evaluate Web sites (http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/webcritique.htm).  Do not use just one search engine.  Different search engines do not give the same results.  Search engines are increasingly falling behind in being able to index all of the information that is exploding on the Internet. According to Steve Lawrence and C. Lee Giles at the NEC Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey,  no search engine is indexing more than 16% of the content on the Web.  ("Tech Thursday," The Washington Post, Peter Bahr, July 9, 1999). 

The goals of this assignment are to help you :

  • become knowledgeable about doing research on the Internet.
  • differentiate between credible Internet information (possible resources for serious research) and questionable or biased sources
  • learn how to differentiate among Internet sites for different audiences and purposes
  • develop your critical thinking skills and back up your conclusions with evidence.
  • learn how to summarize
  • learn how to document Internet sources
  • create user-friendly Web material, with clear, concise text, logical format, correct bibliographic form, and appropriate links to the original resources.
You will be graded on:
  • the choice of Web sites selected (ideally, have one highly credible site and one you question for its credibility.)
  • ease of comprehension; logical discussion supported with evidence;  clear, concise language; correct spelling and grammar
  • clear, logical format 
  • quality of Web document - readability, ease of navigation, appropriate hyperlinks
Observe copyright rules (http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/copyright-internet.htm) for content and graphics. (It is not okay to download the graphics from another site without permission, unless they are advertised as "free.")

Questions and points to address when writing your report

When you analyze the sites and form opinions, backup your opinions with supporting evidence to support your points. Your report should not be in Q & A format. You have flexibility in format and style, as long as your report is clear ar, concise, and well organized.  Be sure to end your report with an appropriate conclusion.

1. Give the URL (http:// address) of the site, and a brief summary of its content.

2. Deconstruct the site's web address. The Web site address is called a "URL". A URL (Uniform Resource Locator) is an Internet address that generally begins with the "http://" symbol. URL addresses can be recognized by the "Domain Name ." Domain Names are divided into categories such as:

.edu - for education sites
.gov - for government sites
.org - for organization sites
.com - for commercial sites
.net - for network infrastructures

There are other domain names; for example, countries can have domain names, such as .jp for Japan.

What do the different parts of a URL, divided by "/" symbols mean? URL addresses are hierarchical. For example, the URL address

"http://www.gmu.edu/facstaff/policy/administrative/60.html", broken down into its components, is (from the lowest to highest): the file "University Policy #60" - Responsible Use of Computing ("60.html"), is linked in a web page called "Un University Administration Policies"  ("administrative"). The "University Administration Policies" page is linked on a web page called the "Faculty/Staff Information" ("facstaff"), which a link on MasonLink the GMU home page, which address is "www.gmu.edu." 

What kind of site are you investigating? Is it a government site, an organization site, an education site? How do you tell if a Web site is a personal Web site? What special interests and biases might be inherent in the various types of sites? Think about this when you investigate.

3. Point out the major categories of information covered on the sites.

4. Do an audience analysis of each of the sites. What clues define the audiences? Provide evidence such as tone, voice, language (accessible to the general public or technical?), graphics, kinds of links, assumed knowledge.

5. Describe some of the main hypertext links on the site.  How do the various links relate to the main theme? Are the links consistent with the main theme, or does the site have personal links? Is it a hodgepodge of various personal interests ts of an individual?

6. Describe the graphics and their relationship to the sites.  Describe them in detail. How do they relate to the topics? Are the graphics designed to grab your attention? Do they make the site easier to use, or help explain concepts? Do the graphics support text information or do they stand alone? Do they overuse graphics to the point of distraction? Who are the various audiences for these graphics? What are your clues?

7. Examine the credibility of the sites and information. You may not be familiar with the institutions, organizations, or individuals who sponsor or who contributed information to the sites (and this is also true with traditional text sources), but can you also find text material by these authors or institutions in the library? From what institutions or organizations do the sites originate? Any group can give itself an official sounding name or logo. What beyond surface credibility gives you clues es about the reliability of the site and its information? Is the sponsoring organization involved in research and/or does it provide supporting documentation to back up its points? Does the site have built in bias? For example is the Web page an advertisement for a product or service? Does it have a particular political or social agenda? Having an agenda or selling a product on the Web is not necessarily "bad," but is the sponsor "sneaky" about its alliances or "up front"?

8. Discuss whether or not the information is current.  Are there links that do not work? How does this affect your impression of the site's credibility? Is the information outdated? Or does it still have value as "background" information?

9. Make some general observations about what you learned about the Web resources on this subject and what you learned about this subject from exploring these sites. What did you learn about your discipline through exploring the Internet sources? What general observations can you make about the usefulness and value of the information you found on the Internet (while aware of the fact that you have not covered all possible sites - only a sampling) on the topic you chose? What did you learn about l looking at information, web-based and others, with a critical eye?

Here are some types of Web sites:

- Personal Home Pages - Web sites which are maintained by individuals.  They are often informal.  Individuals can post their resumes, link to favorite sites, and showcase their interests and ideas.  Some personal Web sites also se serve as professional sites.  For example, many professors publish their syllabi and other course material on their own Web pages.

- Special interest sites - maintained by non-profit organizations or activists dealing with special issues, such as environmental concerns, legalization of marijuana, etc.  They can be relatively mainstream or radical in interests and vary widely in credibility of information.

- Information sites - which include research, reference sources, and fact sheets. Many institutions provide such services to the public. The credibility of the institution providing the facts gives clues as to the reliability of the information.   Is the material documented?

- News and journalistic sites - which include national, international news, online newspapers, magazines. Anyone can publish his or her own "news," on the Web.  As in print - just because it is published does not necessarily mean it is true . If a periodical article has an ISSN (International Standard Serial Number) it will probably have more authority. Web serials that do not have ISSN numbers are probably created by entrepreneurs and less authority than other publications.

- Commercial sites - Although many legitimate businesses have Web sites; some are not legitimate. Companies are in the business of making money and acquiring and keeping customers.  They are naturally biased in favor of their own products, so watch out for inflated claims for performance and quality.  Companies will not showcase their competitors' products. If you are, for example, comparing products, get impartial reviews, not company information. Many entrepreneurs use "rented" Web s pace to create their own Web sites to sell their services or products - buyer beware!  Can you track the reputation of the company?

No category of Web site is "better" than another. They serve different purposes. There are reliable and unreliable Web sites in all categories of Web sites. A personal Web site, which expresses the interests and biases of its author, is a legitimate us e of a Web site, as long as the Web site owner is up front about his or her identity.  Many such sites have useful information. But, when providing a list of scholarly resources on a subject, you want to stick with authoritative sources, with reputations ions in that field. Be wary of sites which publish information and express views without letting you know who the original source is. Web sites can masquerade as one type but may really have a hidden agenda. Any group can give itself an official sounding name or logo. Keep yourself attuned to clues to help you recognize the true nature and intent of sites, and the reliability of the information.

It gets confusing when dealing with personal Web pages. Independent providers, such as AOL, are not responsible for the content of individual's Web pages, anymore than a university is responsible for the Web pages of students (Though, in extreme cases, you can be cut off if your content does not fit certain standards). If a person named "Doe" had a Web page on America Online, the address might be http://www.aol.com/doe/.  Even though the site is commercial (AOL), Mr./Ms. Doe bought Web space for a personal Web page.  Some universities, like GMU, provide Web space to faculty and students.  So personal Web pages can reside on a server with an ".edu" extension.

Resources to help with your project: 
Evaluating Web Sites, Copyright and Internet Issues, Using Search Engines.

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