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LIS2004: Evaluating Internet Resources

Lesson Six: Evaluating Internet Resources

Lesson 6: Evaluating Internet Resources

Evaluating Internet Resources

 Upon completion of this lesson, the student will:
  1. recognize and evaluate website domains,
  2. articulate and apply initial criteria for evaluating a website,
  3. examine a website in order to evaluate reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, timeliness and point of view or bias, and
  4. recognize prejudice, deception, manipulation or logical fallacies in a website.
Introduction

Because of the variety of sources, ease of publication, lack of central control and proliferation of commercial information on the free Internet, it is often hard to tell if the information you are accessing is reliable. Many sites contain research and information of high quality. However, unlike traditional print publications or library-based electronic resources, there is usually no process of peer review, nor is there an editor verifying the accuracy of information presented on the Internet. There are increasing numbers of sites containing information which may be incomplete, anonymously written, out-of-date, biased, or whose content may not be factual. In some cases, an Internet site may be akin to an electronic tabloid publication.

Since you should never automatically accept the information you are retrieving at face value, how do you find the most credible Internet resources? How do you decide if a source or an author of a website is qualified to discuss the subject presented? Identifying the type of Internet source you are considering and asking some basic questions about the source will help you in the evaluation process. You will become a consumer of information rather than misinformation.

When Should You Use the Internet?

Even though this course is about the Internet, and the Internet does contain a wealth of valuable information, it may not be the most appropriate source for you at any given time. Contrary to popular myth, many information resources cannot be found on the Internet! Current books, texts, and full-text journal articles are not usually freely available on the Internet. Internet sources tend to be recent; information prior to 1993 is generally not available unless it is free of copyright restrictions. In some instances, the Internet may serve to supplement information from traditional resources but may not replace those sources.

Although it is becoming increasingly easier to find audio files, video files, illustrations, and information in multimedia formats, the Internet is still primarily a text environment. Consequently, there may be times when the "old-fashioned" way of looking for information, such as looking something up in a reference book, will provide the answer you need in five minutes, when it may take an hour on the Internet to find similar information. In all cases, use the information tool which is most appropriate; when that tool is the Internet, this lesson will help ensure that you use credible sites.

Types of Internet Sites

Internet sites originate from a variety of sources and contain an equally wide variety of types of information, including advertising, personal stories and narratives, biographical information, business memos, news, research, and statistics, as well as articles from professional journals and publications. It is important to determine exactly what type of resource you are viewing and to understand any underlying biases that may make the source an inappropriate one.

Your Internet sources must be analyzed individually. Not all education and government pages or sites will be appropriate for your particular research need; likewise, a commercial resource is not necessarily an inappropriate source of information. The following comprise the major categories of Internet resources:

Government Sites

Government (federal, state, local) sites may provide laws, statistics, health information, timely information on issues concerning all citizens, or information about government agencies. These sites are not only some of the most widely available on the Internet, but some of the most useful and reliable. The domain name .gov is an indication that the site is a governmental one although some government agencies use other domain names. Some typical government sites include the following:

Many state or county sites have now adopted the domain .us. For example, the official website of the Florida Legislature is http://www.leg.state.fl.us/

Another exception to the rule is MyFlorida: The Official Portal of the state of Florida. The domain of this page is .com.

Education Sites

Education sites may provide scholarly works from academic departments, course syllabi, class schedules, home pages of colleges and high schools, online courses, library catalogs and links to information databases. Education sites tend to be reliable although individual student or faculty pages may vary in authority. The domain name .edu is an indication that the site is from an educational institution although not all education sites have such a domain name. Some typical education sites include the following:

Non-Profit/Advocacy Sites

A non-profit site is one sponsored by an organization attempting to influence public opinion. Non-profit organizations may provide studies, statistics and resources. The domain name .org is an indication that the site is from a non-profit or advocacy group. Some typical sites include the following:

News Sites

The primary purpose of a news site is to provide current information about newsworthy topics. In many cases, these sites will provide the most up-to-date information available. Most major metropolitan newspapers and television news networks maintain websites. As these are commercial operations, the domain name .com will most frequently be found with a news site. Some typical news sites include the following:

Business/Marketing Sites

A business or marketing Web page is one sponsored by a commercial enterprise. Business sites may provide such resources as annual reports, company histories, stock quotes, and product advertising. These sites may actively promote the sale of items. The domain name .com will be most frequently found with this type of site. Some typical business sites are the following:

Personal Web Pages & Blogs

A personal web page is one authored by an individual not officially associated with an educational, organizational, or governmental institution. These pages vary greatly in terms of content and quality control and should be used cautiously as a source of factual information. Personal sites also tend to have a short life expectancy; for these reasons, personal sites are usually not suitable for serious research. However, a personal site may provide a number of links to other sites that may be reliable. MySpace is currently a popular source of personal web pages.

A variety of domain names may be used for a personal Web page. Frequently, the name of the person will be part of the URL, following a tilde (~), as in ~smith. The domain name .name also indicates a personal Web page.

As discussed in Lesson 1 (Blogs, RSS Feeds, and Podcasts), one type of increasingly popular personal site that provides information is called a "blog." A "blogger" can "post" links and opinions about websites they find useful or interesting. Posts often appear in reverse chronological order. The blog can also serve as a personal journal for the blogger, allowing readers to leave comments.

Wikipedia & Wikis

Wikipedia is a popular and often controversial online encyclopedia created and maintained by volunteers. Entries can be edited by anyone, regardless of their experience, credentials or writing skills.

The word wiki comes from the Hawaiian word for fast and indicates a quick website, as well as the social software used to create it. Wikis allow groups to collaboratively work together in a virtual environment.

Wikipedia has led the movement towards "user-created content" on the Internet earning praises for its extensive coverage of subjects. At the same time, this collaborative community has been scrutinized for its reliability, accuracy and uneven quality.

It has been Wikipedia's collective-wisdom-philosophy "that unmoderated collaboration among well-meaning, informed editors will gradually improve the encyclopedia in its breadth, depth and accuracy, and that, given enough time, the truth will win out and even subtle errors will be caught and corrected" (from “"Wikipedia Sociology").

Students and others performing serious academic research are encouraged to use Wikipedia as a jumping off point, not as a primary source.

Watch the video clip found in the box below titled "Colbert vs. Wikipedia," host and humorist Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, comments on Wikipedia (note: the free Flash player is required to view this video,and it is best viewed with the Firefox browser. If the embedded video does not work, try the following link: "Colbert vs. Wikipedia." 

Increasingly, many websites are supported by advertisements. Web advertisements are usually presented as banners, hyperlinks or pop-up windows. As an information consumer, it is your job to decide whether there is a conflict of interest between the sponsor and the objectivity of the website. The presence or absence of advertisements does not automatically brand a website as authoritative or unreliable, objective or biased. Sites must be evaluated individually according to the criteria in the Evaluation Questions section. A webfomercial is comparable to a television infomercial. If a commercial site disguises itself as an informational site, it should be viewed cautiously.

Discussion Groups

Discussion groups have their own set of criteria and problems related to quality control. It is fair to assume that most all conversations on mailing lists, newsgroups and in chat rooms are opinion. Because messages to most of these groups are processed by software packages, there is little or no attempt to control the content. Look for a link from the signature to the writer's credentials or home page to help judge the credibility of the posting. Messages taken out of context or read out of the thread of the discussion topic can also lead to problems, so you should read the entire discussion thread.

Search Engines

Search Engines like Google, Yahoo! and MSN should be evaluated based on their ease of use and the quality of the websites they provide before using. However, just because a website was found using one of these search engines does not guarantee that the sites listed are “good” websites. Search engines rank their results based on their company’s own proprietary, automated method. They do not use the methods you will learn in the Evaluation Questions section.

Each website found via a search engine must be personally evaluated based on the criteria you are about to learn.

Evaluation Questions

You may not be a subject expert in the area you are researching, but there are a number of basic things you can look for to help you evaluate the credibility of an Internet site. In addition to a number of characteristics, which are easy to ascertain, there are additional elements that require more analysis. The following are some questions you should ask when considering whether or not to use an Internet source.

Authority/Source Questions

  • Is there an identified author of the Web page or site?
  • Is contact information, i.e., an e-mail address and/or address, given for the author?
  • Are the credentials of the author stated?
  • Is the author an expert in his/her field?
    Hint: Look up the author in a biographical reference source.
  • Have others, either in the print media or electronic sources, cited the author?
    Hint: If possible, do a search on the author's name in a "citation style" index or a "keyword" index or look in bibliographies of other sources.
  • Have other web pages linked to this page or site?
    Hint: In Google, search link: and the URL of a website (ex: link:www.irsc.edu) to see which sites are linked to a certain page. 
  • Does the site comply with current copyright guidelines?
    Hint: See The Copyright Website and 10 Big Myths About Copyright Explained. Note that everything that is published on the Internet is protected under copyright law.
  • Is this site sponsored by an organization? If so, is the purpose and scope of the organization given? Is a phone number and surface mail address given for the organization, in addition to an e-mail address?
    Hint: If you cannot tell if the site is sponsored by an organization, erase the address from the right down to the domain name. This should display the home page of the organization.

Currency/Date Questions

  • How current is the information?
  • When was the site or page last updated?
  • Is the original copyright date posted?
  • Does the site or page aim to provide current information or is it primarily for historical purposes?
  • How up-to-date are the links on the site?
  • Is the information timely in relation to the content?
  • If the site or page provides time sensitive information, is the frequency of updates posted?

Objectivity/Bias Questions

  • Does the site have a bias?
    Hint: If the site deals with a controversial topic, look for an identification of the author's bias.
  • Is there a commercial or organizational interest associated with the site?
    Hint: Be aware that organizations, businesses, and individuals represent their own viewpoints in information presented through their websites. Organizations with a particular mission (e.g.,  environmental organizations) may publish only information that supports their point of view. Businesses may publish positive reviews of their own products and events. Also, be aware that a personal website may reflect strong political, religious, or social opinions of that individual.
  • Are there advertisements on the page? Is the page actually an ad disguised as information?
    Hint: Sometimes this is obvious; other times it may be very subtle. Look at the source of the site.
  • Is the site based on verifiable facts or opinions?
    Hint: Look for bibliographies and references to traditional publications.
  • Are inflammatory words, phrases or profanity used in the site?
    Hint: Look for personal attacks, ridicule and the use of emotional appeals rather than rational ones.
  • Are misleading or deceptive arguments used?
    Hint: Look for over-simplification of information, scare tactics, testimonials, over-generalizations, categorical statements, and exaggerations that are intended to persuade.
  • Are there fallacies in arguments and reasoning?
    Hint: Look for distorted data, information presented out-of-context, unstated assumptions, bandwagon persuasion techniques and other logical fallacies. Because of the capabilities of hypertext, it is easy to jump into a site at any point; this can lead to unintentionally viewing information out-of-context. Go back to the top of the page and read the purpose of the information. Become familiar with the surrounding text.
  • Are stereotypes or ethnocentric arguments used?
  • Look at the Logical Fallacies Matching Game or Stephen Downes Guide to the Logical Fallacies to help analyze a website and to review prior to playing Logical Fallacies Hangman at the Quick Check link below.
  

Accuracy Questions

  • Does the page use correct spelling and grammar? Is the writing clear and concise?
    Hint: Only if the native language of the Web designer is not English should minor spelling and grammatical inconsistencies be overlooked. Spelling and grammatical errors point to lack of quality control.

  • Is the information presented verifiable and accurate?

  • Hint: Verify questionable facts, statistics, etc. with a reputable print source. Don't depend on one source for all of your information, especially if you are not familiar with the topic.


Coverage Questions

  • How complete and thorough is the coverage of the information presented?
    Hint: Compare the website with another on the same topic or with a print source. Knowing something about the topic will help you identify any obvious gaps or omissions in the coverage of the topic.


Relevancy Questions

  • Is the purpose or goal of the resource clearly stated?
    Hint: Look for links that say "About Us" "Philosophy" or "Mission."

  • Does this Web page closely relate to what I need?

  • Does the content support my thesis statement?

  • Is the content too broad or narrow for my needs?

  • Is there original content or is the page a collection of links?


Audience Questions

  • Does the site state its intent?

  • Is the site directed to a specific audience?
    Hint: Look for the depth and tone of the site to help identify the audience.

  • If the site claims to provide scholarly research, are references available?

  • Is the content of the site appropriate for your research needs?
    Hint: A site designed for elementary school children would probably not be appropriate for a college research paper.


Consensus Questions

  • How does this Web page or site compare with others on the same subject?

  • How does this Web page or site compare with print sources or proprietary electronic sources on the same subject?

  • Does the page or site contain references to other websites, articles, books, etc?

  • Does the information presented agree or disagree with an accepted point of view?
    Hint: Compare the site with others on the same topic to help answer these questions.


Design Questions

  • Is the website easy to read and navigate? Are instructions clear?
    Hint: Look for type styles and backgrounds that make the pages clear and readable, identifiable links that are logically grouped, and a consistent layout from page to page with a link back to the home page from each underlying page.

  • Does the site load quickly?
    Hint: Look for large, superfluous graphics, which add nothing to the page, but slow down access.

  • Are there links to other pages and back to the main page? Are links up-to-date and active?

  • Do design elements enhance or hinder the accessibility and content of the site?

  • Does the site have stable and reliable access?

  • Is a text version available?

 

 

 

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Copyright © 1997-2009 Florida Community College, Learning Resources Standing Committee. Last revised May 2009 by the LIS 2004 Course Revision Committee.

Colbert vs. Wikipedia