I love online research. It’s so convenient to sit on the futon and surf the Web under a blanket, a cup of tea within easy reach.
Unfortunately, the Internet doesn’t have any quality control. Information I find there could be legit or it could be as bogus as a three-dollar bill.
You can look for these things to decide if you’ve reached a credible website.
Date–when was the website last updated?
Is the last update of the website recent? For papers in grad school, any research older than three to five years wouldn’t fly. I try to keep this in mind when I’m checking facts for anything else. It depends on the subject, of course; medical and technology info becomes dated fast. You can safely dismiss most information older than ten years.
Check external links. If most of them are broken, the site may not be up-to-date.
Extensions–what kind of website is it?
Universities use .edu, businesses and regular websites use .com, and organizations such as non-profits often use .org. Governments tend to use .gov, at least in the US. Websites outside the US often have a country extension in them, such as .uk (United Kingdom), .au (Australia), or .jp (Japan). A website in England might be www.reallyhotbritishguys.co.uk.
Image: photostock / freedigitalphotos.net
Students who don’t know anything might have created.edu pages, though this is less likely at a respected institution. And anyone can make an .org page. Beware also of wikis with no listed authors that anyone can edit. On Wikipedia, you’ll find information that can give you a rough overview of the topic. Most entries will also have links at the bottom that will send you to better sources.
Ownership–who does the website belong to?
You’ll find the world-famous Mayo Clinic at www.mayoclinic.org. Go to the bottom of their home page and read what it says there. I’ll wait.
Finished? What did you see? I saw these:
- A copyright: © 1998-2015 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. All rights reserved. You can google the Mayo Foundation, and you’ll find this link at gov, which is the US Department of Health and Human Services.
- A contact link: The organization provides phone numbers, a physical address for each of its clinics, fax numbers, and emails. You can easily reach someone there if you have questions.
- An About page: Here, you’ll find a ton of information about the organization, its mission, and its people.
Image: stockimages / freedigitalphotos.net
Content–is it biased, or does it appear to steer you toward one conclusion?
None of these things necessarily mean that a site is legit; the most important bit is verifying the organization’s credibility through separate searches. One of the best examples we were given in school was a website that looked very professional and had contact and updated information.
The entire site, which belonged to a racist organization, contained very reasonably written and even-toned rants against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Once you started reading it, you realized pretty quickly that this was probably not a website you could use in your paper on Dr. King. But it came up in searches as though it were legitimate.
If you’re reading about athlete’s foot, and the website has a .com extension, you might be on a site that is selling something. Any information there is probably going to be somewhat biased. Read it carefully–does it sound too good to be true? Are there links or sidebars with product information?
Documentation–are sources properly cited, or listed at all?
A legitimate site containing research will cite its sources–author names, where they got the research, etc. You should be able to verify all the information yourself.
Find more tips on avoiding web junk at these links.
The OWL (Online Writing Lab) at Purdue University: Using Research and Evidence
Harvard Guide to Using Sources