Evaluate Internet sites

Evaluating material from the World Wide Web is as important as evaluating every book that you use during the research process. By establishing evaluative criteria for online resources, you begin to determine if you can draw any conclusions about the reliability and accuracy of the information you have found.

There are many different types of online resources that are appropriate for investigating historical questions, but you should check with your professor to determine what the requirements are for your section. The information on this page should be used in conjunction with Worksheet #3 "Using Online Resources With Intelligence" in the Paideia I Guide to Writing and pp. 176-177and 180-181 in easyWriter.

Using online resources provided by the Library
Using online resources gathered by search engines
Tips for evaluating web information

Using Online Resources Provided by Preus Library

Preus Library provides students with access to a large amount of electronic information, ranging from the databases you might use to find your scholarly articles, to full-text journals online and electronic dictionaries and encyclopedias. Many of these resources are selected with the Paideia research papers in mind, and provide a quick and reliable way to access peer-reviewed scholarly information. Articles that have been examined by subject experts before publication are “peer-reviewed”, which means they are considered accurate and appropriate for use in scholarly research.

The databases covered elsewhere are the best place to start. JSTOR, Project MUSE, America: History & Life, or Historical Abstracts, contain only scholarly information (much of which is peer-reviewed), and Academic Search Complete has a search option to include only those journals that are peer-reviewed. You do not need to apply the same rigorous evaluative questions to materials found in these databases since the librarians have already done this part of the research for you.

All of these resources can be accessed through the library’s home page and the online catalog. Keep track of which database you used and the date you accessed the article, since you will need this information for the citations in your bibliography. Librarians will be able to answer additional questions about how to access and use these resources.

Using Online Resources Gathered by Search Engines

Search engines such as Google or Yahoo are also available for research. Often, these searches yield large amounts of information that require some degree of evaluation on your part. Some web sites can be rich sources of information for research projects, particularly those that make available primary source material that is too costly or rare to be among the holdings in Preus Library.

The librarian working with your section may have suggestions for reliable web sites, so check your library guide for those. Again, make sure you keep track of the URL(s) for the website(s) and the date you found the information, you will need that information for the citations in your bibliography.

The structure of the Internet can present any number of problems for serious researchers, because although it makes retrieving certain pieces of information easy enough through the use of search engines, it can be difficult to know exactly who is responsible for presenting that information. Let’s say you’re investigating 16th century opinions of Shakespeare. Unless you check carefully, you would have no way of knowing whether any given web page was produced by a respected historian, a publisher trying to sell books, a seventh-grade student who likes the idea of putting everything she writes on the web, or an academic library trying to make archival materials available to the wider public.

I you research the same question using the library databases mentioned above, you would have a better chance of finding resources that discuss contemporary opinions about Shakespeare.

Tips for evaluating web information

By using questions about peer-review, comparison of sources, and corroborating the facts, you can build your skills for evaluating online materials. Do not hesitate to ask you instructor or librarian for help in evaluating the merits of a web source.

Here are some basic questions to consider as you evaluate information, especially the online resources you found with a search engine:

  • What is the domain of the site? Is it .edu (educational institution), .com (commercial), or .org (federal or non-profit organization)? After you have identified the domain, you can better determine who actually created the site.
  • What is the form of the information? Is it a well-organized page or site? Is it in the form of a journal article or similar print resource? Is it a collection of commentaries or opinions?
  • Can you tell who the author is? Are any credentials listed, such as academic degrees, current positions/job titles, or background experience in the topic?
  • What is the function of the site? Is it informational? Does it advertise a product? Does it advocate a point of view? Is it personal opinion?
  • After you have looked at a few web sites for your topic, can you compare the similarities and differences in the documents?
    • Can you make any evaluative judgments about the information? Choose the better source and use it to compare to new sources that you find.
    • Does one site have more information than the other? Is the information more complete? Does one source include quotations or pictures that help to give you a better understanding of the topic?
    • When you compare the sources, do you find any discrepancies in the facts? Are any controversial questions raised? If you cannot establish that one source is correct, you may need to address the topic carefully, or do more research to determine the basis for the controversy.
    • Can you compare the language used in the sources to determine if the point of view is neutral or if the author(s) exhibit bias against another point of view? If the language is not neutral, can you determine why the authors are representing their point of view?
    • Does your site seem to present unique information that cannot be found in another source?
  • Can you corroborate the information you have found by finding the same information in other sources (online or print)? You can use this method to address any controversial questions you may have found when you began to compare your sources of information.
  • How do you plan to use the information in your paper? Does it support your thesis? Does it challenge your thesis? Can you find a scholarly conversation that addresses your topic from different viewpoints? Can you integrate the information with the other sources you plan to use?