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
history or 'Cannibal Chief Eats His Mail Order Brides' when writing
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
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
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
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.
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
the Web was not widespread before 1992, with or without a date, the page
to be more than a couple of years old. How old the information is, of
another matter. Mailing lists and newsgroups have the date at the top of
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
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
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
this can be a good sign. It can also mean that you've found a circle of
are prolific on the Web or someone who is using the same name as someone
The Alta Vista search engine can help you look for links to the page you
at (yet another variation of the Citation Index). At http://www.altavista.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
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
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.
.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
US). They may also be businesses with a specific point of view to
When looking at the URL, you can try to decode the different pieces:
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
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
- Are there references within the text? If these are print references,
they can be evaluated
the usual way. If they are links to other Internet documents, you're
back at the starting point in evaluating the new reference.
Is the author reporting on research she or he did personally? First-hand
is very valuable information if it is done well. Look at how well
are used. If you don't have enough information to evaluate the results,
reported are weaker than if you know the research methods used.
Is the author discussing a controversial topic? It's important to know
the author has to discuss the topic and any biases that may affect
Do other sources say the same thing? If you're finding the same
information in reliable
print sources as online, you're on safer ground.
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.
One good sign is that more refereed journals are being published online.
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
regard anything on the Internet as potentially completely fake. The
is not always virtuous. A careful look at the author and the content is
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.
The Web maestro: An interview with Tim Berners-Lee. (1996). Technology
Review, 99 (5), 32-40.
If you have questions, comments, or for more information,
contact Deborah Healey, dhealey AT uoregon DOT edu
updated 26 June, 2009