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Technology Tip of the Month


February 2002: Evaluating Sources

An update of the July, 1996 tip

by Deborah Healey

Students doing research papers need to learn how to evaluate their sources -- or risk coming up with gems such as 'Alien Map Guided Columbus in 1492' in a discussion of history or 'Cannibal Chief Eats His Mail Order Brides' when writing about different marriage customs (both of these from that supermarket classic, the Weekly World News, July 2, 1996 issue). Then again, there's 'Jet Passenger Captures Picture of Angel' from the July 2, 1996 Sun, or even the psychology articles like 'He'll Never Lie Again' from the July, 1996 Mademoiselle.

When we're talking about print sources, we can start by saying that supermarket tabloids do not generally count as reliable. Magazines are generally less reliable than journals. For print media, there are guides such as the Book Review Index (Detroit: Gale Research) and Book Review Digest (New York: H.W. Wilson) that compile reviews, giving readers a sense of what others think about new books. Periodicals are evaluated in Magazines for Libraries, a guide for librarians.

With the Internet as with other sources, readers and researchers must take a critical approach toward information. The Internet, unfortunately, doesn't have a framework for reliability established yet. And since just about anyone with a phone line, modem, and computer can become a Web server, the opportunity for disseminating questionable information is high.

However, there are a few things the conscientious reader/researcher can do, many of them modifications of the critical approach taken with print media:

Look at the Date

Many Web pages have a line at the bottom saying when the page was last updated. Since the Web was not widespread before 1992, with or without a date, the page is unlikely to be more than a couple of years old. How old the information is, of course, is another matter. Mailing lists and newsgroups have the date at the top of the message.

Look at the Author

Most mailing lists will have the author's name at the top of the message, as will newsgroups. On the Web, the name of the author may be at the top or bottom of the Web page (or nowhere to be found). Sometimes there will be a link to more information about the author on the page--keeping in mind that none of it may be true. Readers also have the same options with Internet authors as for print ones: looking in the appropriate Who's Who,Social Sciences Citation Index, Humanities Citation Index, orContemporary Authors, or asking the librarian or knowledgeable person in the field.

An online variation of the Citation Index is to do a World Wide Web search with the author's name as the keyword. If the author is cited frequently by others, especially those outside the author's institution, this can be a good sign. It can also mean that you've found a circle of friends who are prolific on the Web or someone who is using the same name as someone else.

The Alta Vista search engine can help you look for links to the page you are looking at (yet another variation of the Citation Index). At http://www.altavista.com you'll type in
link:http://www.mysite.com -host:http://www.mysite.com
where mysite.com is replaced with the site you want to find the links for. The second piece, with -host, helps make sure the links aren't just ones on the host machine.

The URL (Uniform Resource Locator, or the address that usually starts with http://) gives other clues about the author. Looking at the URL may help the reader know whether the content is from an educational institution, an individual, a government organization, or a business.

Some conventions in naming on the Web are the use of .edu at or near the end of the address for an educational institution, .gov for a government organization, .mil for the military, and .com, and .net for commercial organizations. The .org ending is often associated with non-profit entities, but can also be for other businesses. Addresses with .com or .net may be from people who subscribe to commercial Internet providers, such as America Online (aol.com) or Rain (rain.net -- an Internet provider in the Pacific Northwestern US). They may also be businesses with a specific point of view to promote.

When looking at the URL, you can try to decode the different pieces:
http://osu.orst.edu/Dept/eli/techtip.html and  http://osu.orst.edu/~healeyd/
The .edu in http://osu.orst.edu/Dept/eli/techtip.html means an educational institution. Given that information, Dept and eli are pretty straightforward. Not all educational institutions are that obvious, however. The second example, http://osu.orst.edu/~healeyd/, shows the use of another common convention--the ~ tilde in front of the name of a person at the institution or company. Again, it's a convention, not a rule. Still, the tilde may give you pause when choosing whether or not to believe a specific source.

Look at the Links

Tim Berners-Lee, the person who created the World Wide Web software, points out the importance of knowing where information came from:
You don't go down the street, after all, picking up every piece of paper blowing in the breeze. If you find that a search engine gives you garbage, don't use it. ... Pretty soon you'll have some bookmarks on places you trust, and your reading quality will increase. You may find that the better sources have involved considerable human effort, and so there will be either advertising to read, a subscription to pay, or a volunteer to thank. Or did you want quality for nothing? (Technology Review, 1996: 37)

Look at the Content


Search Engines

Some search engines rate sites, but it's rarely on the basis of academic distinction. Much has changed in the last few years, and search engines have moved into increasingly commercial directions. You are more likely to find sites that pay the search engine than those that do not. If you end up with a few hits that seem to have no connection to your search, it's probably because the site operator either paid for a certain number of hits or because the site operator has added bogus descriptors to the site so it gets even unrelated searches. This isn't what the search engines tell you, of course.

Many search engines now have an optional filter that works to eliminate pornographic sites from showing up in your search. In Google (www.google.com), for example, you can turn on Safe Search through the preferences. In AltaVista (www.altavista.com), it's called a Family Filter. While these are not perfect, they help a lot.

Refereed Journals

One good sign is that more refereed journals are being published online. While having referees is not a guarantee of a journal's quality, it's a move in the right direction toward quality control.

The Bottom Line

It's good to have a critical attitude with print, but the reader must regard anything on the Internet as potentially completely fake. The virtual world is not always virtuous. A careful look at the author and the content is essential before considering information on the Internet reliable. Still, the Internet is unequalled in terms of the amount of very recent and uncensored information that can be found relatively easily. It's a wonderful first stop for raw material for a research paper -- the content just needs to be taken with caution.

Reference
The Web maestro: An interview with Tim Berners-Lee. (1996). Technology Review, 99 (5), 32-40.


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If you have questions, comments, or for more information, contact Deborah Healey, dhealey AT uoregon DOT edu

http://www.deborahhealey.com/techtips/feb2002.html
Last updated 26 June, 2009