Thinking Critically About Web Resources
When searching the web, one may find websites as diverse as those that contain scholarly, research focused information and those that are popular and not intended for serious research. Because the quality of information found in a website may range from that which is accurate and highly dependable to that which is dubious, one must be able to properly evaluate a website for possible inclusion into research. The following are criteria to use:
Evaluate the source
- Who is the author? A well constructed webpage should give this information. What are the author's academic or scholarly credentials? If the website does not provide author information, a reference librarian might be able to help you find information about the author.
- Is the author an authority or expert? A broad knowledge of other research in a particular field will often help one to identify a particular author's reputation in that field. Just as revealing is if the author demonstrates a broad knowledge of the research going on in a particular field on a defined topic.
- Who is responsible for the website? Is the site sponsored by a group or organization that has a vested interest in the information given? Unless a known, reputable publisher or institution is responsible for the content, that content will be more questionable in terms of reliability.
- Is the website an academic, commercial, governmental, or personal website? The answer to this question will often tell you what the purpose of the author or creator of the site is.
Evaluate the content
- Who is the intended audience? Is the audience meant to be researchers or students in higher education? Most search engines allow one to search by a particular URL to find what other websites have links to it. This may assist in determining the targeted audience.
- Is there a stated purpose for the webpage? Is it to inform, to explain, to persuade, or to even sell a product? Or, is the site's goal merely to entertain an audience?
- How objective is the information? Try to distinguish factual data from opinions. Be on the lookout for manipulative reasoning and bias. If the topic is a controversial one, the author should admit it.
- How accurate is the data? As accuracy is not always easy to identify, you may wish to test a particular source against others on the topic. Is the information well researched and based on evidence? Does it provide an in-depth analysis of the topic?
- Is the information up-to-date for the content? Many topics, especially in the sciences, require up-to-date and recently published information. Check to see when the website was last updated.
- Does the site refer to other sites or data? Have those other sites or data been given an evaluation by this site? Are they relevant and reliable sources? A good, reliable webpage is not apt to refer to irrelevant and unreliable sources.
Reference librarians are able to recommend web-based research sites and databases to help you in your research. They have also created subject guides with recommended subject-specific webpages that you might find useful.