|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. Searching
for sources on the WWW involves using a search engine, a directory, or
some combination of these two. Because there is so much information on
the Web, good and bad, finding what you want is not an exact science and
can be time consuming. According to Nicholas C. Burbules, "....the Web
is not an ordinary reference system; it poses some unique and, in many
respects, unprecedented conditions that complicate the task of sorting
out dependable from undependable information--and even complicates the
notion that we have a clear sense of that distinction. How to differentiate
credible from fraudulent information is not a new problem, but unraveling
these in the context of a vast rapidly changing networked system is" (Paradoxes
of the Web: The Ethical Dimensions of Credibility, Library Trends, Wntr
2001 v49 i3 p441, Introduction).
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. Though
many search engines rank material according to their idea of what is relevant,
that doesn't mean the material is relevant to want you want or is
reliable. These guidelines are to help you become familiar with various
types of Web resources and the reliability of the information.
1. Is there any evidence that
the author of the Web information has some authority in the field about
which she or he is providing information? What are the author's qualifications,
credentials and connections to the subject?
2. With what organization
or institution is the author associated? Is there a link to the sponsoring
organization, a contact number and/or address or e-mail contact? A link
to an association does not necessarily mean that the organization approved
3. Does the author have publications
in peer reviewed (scholarly and professional) publications, on the Web
or in hard copy? (If an author does not have peer reviewed articles published,
this does not mean that she or he does not have credible information, only
that there has been no professional "test" of the author's authority on
4. Are there clues that the
author/s are biased? For example, is he/she selling or promoting a product?
Is the author taking a personal stand on a social/political issue or is
the author being objective ? Bias is not necessarily "bad," but the connections
should be clear.
5. Is the Web information
current? If there are a number of out-of-date links that do not work or
old news, what does this say about the credibility of the information?
6. Does the information have
a complete list of works cited, which reference credible, authoritative
sources? If the information is not backed up with sources, what is the
author's relationship to the subject to be able to give an "expert" opinion?
7. Can the subject you are
researching be fully covered with WWW sources or should print sources provide
balance? Much scholarly research is still only available in traditional
print form. It is safe to assume that if you have limited background in
a topic and have a limited amount of time to do your research, you may
not be able to get the most representative material on the subject. So
be wary of making unsupportable conclusions based on a narrow range of
8. On what kind of Web site
does the information appear? The site can give you clues about the credibility
of the source.
Here are some types of Web sites:
Personal Home Pages - maintained
by individuals. They are often informal. Individuals can post their resumes,
link to favorite sites, showcase their interests and ideas. Some personal
Web sites also serve as professional sites. For example, many professors
publish their syllabi, course material and, in some cases, their scholarship,
on their personal Web pages. Entrepreneurs often advertise their services
on "home" 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. Special interest sites are, by their nature, biased. When
using such sources, your readers should be aware of the source's special
Professional sites - maintained
by institutions/organizations, sometimes by individuals. They can include
research, reference sources, fact sheets. Many institutions provide such
services to the public. The credibility of the institution or professional
credential of the individual providing the facts gives clues as to the
reliability of the information. Is the site just linking to sources? If
so, the credibility of the information is connected to the originating
News and Journalistic sites (E-zines)
- which include national, international news, online newspapers, magazines,
and "homegrown" Web publications. Anyone can publish his or her own "news,"
on the Web. What do you know about, or what can you find out about, the
reputation of the periodical? Is it an electronic version of a credible
print publication? As in print - just because information is published
does not necessarily mean it is true. If a periodical article has an ISSN
number (International Standard Serial Number), it will probably have more
9. Deconstruct the Web address
(URL) to find out the source of the information (and the server on which
it resides). What do the different parts of a URL, divided by "/" symbols
mean? URL addresses are hierarchical. For example, the URL address:
Commercial sites - Although many
legitimate businesses have Websites, some are not legitimate. Companies,
with good and bad reputations, 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 space to create their
own Web sites to sell their services or products - buyer beware! Can you
track the reputation of the company?
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 "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 server is called: "www.gmu.edu."
Web sites serve different purposes.
There are reliable and unreliable Web sites in most categories of Web sites.
A personal Web site, which expresses the interests and biases of its author,
is a legitimate use of a Web site, as long as the Web site owner is up
front about his or her identity. Like any other source, the authority of
the author helps determine the value of the information. Be wary of sites
which publish information without letting you know if the information is
a personal viewpoint. If the information is not a personal viewpoint,
does the author tell you the original source? Is the original source
credible? Web sites can masquerade as one type but may have a hidden agenda.
Any group can give itself an official sounding name or logo.