More information is being published online by individuals, organizations, and academic databases. Because anyone can publish online, evaluation of web sources is extremely important. Any source accessed through a university library academic database is acceptable. Any source produced by or made available through a government agency is acceptable. Those two instances are a small percentage of the information available on the internet. So, what are the elements of an acceptable web source that does not come from a university library or government agency? Below are six criteria for evaluating the acceptability of a web source.1 Wikipedia should not be used as a source, but it can be used as a starting point to find other sources. Additionally, not all the questions below will apply to every web source; they are a guide through the evaluation process. Finally, if there is any question about the acceptability of a web source ask a librarian or an instructor.
Note1 The criteria discussed in this guide were compiled from four University Libraries Columbia, Georgetown, Purdue, and Cornell.
Evaluating Online Sources,Columbia University Library, accessed December 14,2020, https://library.columbia.edu/libraries/undergraduate.html;
Evaluating Web Pages: Questions to Consider: Put It All Together,Cornell University Library, accessed December 14,2020, https://guides.library.cornell.edu/home;
Evaluating Internet Resources,Georgetown University Library, accessed December 14,2020, https://www.library.georgetown.edu/;
Evaluating Digital Sources,Purdue University Library, accessed December 14,2020, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/purdue_owl.html
If the author is not identified be wary. When an article or website is authored anonymously it has little credibility. It should be evident who created the content. What are the author's credentials? Does he/she have expertise in this field? Is biographical information provided?
- Is the name of the author/creator on the page?
- Are his/her credentials listed (occupation, years of experience, position, or education)?
- Is the author qualified to write on the given topic? Why?
- Is there contact information, such as an email address, somewhere on the page?
- Is there a link to a homepage?
- If there is a link to a homepage, is it for an individual or for an organization?
- If the author is with an organization, does it appear to support or sponsor the page?
- What does the domain name/URL reveal about the source of the information if anything?
- If the owner is not identified, what can you tell about the origin of the site from the address?
- Note: To find relevant information about the author, check personal homepages on the Web, campus directory entries and information retrieved through search engines. Also check print sources in a Library Reference area; Who's Who in America, Biography Index, and other biographical sources can be used to determine the author's credentials.
This can help you determine the origin of the document, for example whether it is produced by an established publisher, a government agency, a nonprofit organization, or a commercial website. Consider the publisher's reputation and trustworthiness.
- Accuracy and objectivity
Can the facts presented on a website be substantiated elsewhere? Beware of information that cannot be confirmed or that presents a biased view. Always check multiple sources to determine credibility.
- Are the sources for factual information clearly listed so that the information can be verified?
- Is it clear who has the ultimate responsibility for the accuracy of the content of the material?
- Can you verify any of the information in independent sources or from your own knowledge?
- Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
- Is the information free of grammatical, spelling, or typographical errors?
- Is the information covered fact, opinion, or propaganda?
- Is the author's point-of-view objective and impartial?
- Is the language free of emotion-rousing words and bias?
- Is the author affiliated with an organization?
- Does the author's affiliation with an institution or organization appear to bias the information?
- Does the content of the page have the official approval of the institution, organization, or company?
- Timeliness and Links
Be aware of when the web page was created and how recently it's been updated. Is the information current? Outdated information and broken links indicate the page is not being maintained.
- If timeliness of the information is important, is it kept up-to-date?
- Is There an indication of when the site was last updated?
- Are links related to the topic and useful to the purpose of the site?
- Are links still current, or have they become dead ends?
- What kinds of sources are linked?
- Are the links evaluated or annotated in any way?
- Note: The quality of Web pages linked to the original Web page may vary; therefore, you must always evaluate each Web site independently.
- Footnotes and bibliographies
Legitimate references and links to other sources can add to a document's credibility and depth of scholarship.
- Why should anyone believe information from this site?
- Does the information appear to be valid and well-researched, or is it unsupported by evidence?
- Are quotes and other strong assertions backed by sources that you could check through other means?
- What institution (company, government, university, etc.) supports this information?
- If it is an institution, have you heard of it before? Can you find more information about it?
- Is there a non-Web equivalent of this material that would provide a way of verifying its legitimacy?
If you can view the information properly (not limited by fees, browser technology, or special software requirements), then you may have a Web page of research value.
- Additional Considerations
There are a few more considerations when evaluating web source.
- While domains such as .org, .net, .edu, and .gov can add credibility to a web source, they did not do so automatically. Additionally, other domains such as .com, .wiki, .blog and others should not automatically be discounted or ignored. Any acceptable web source should also meet a majority of the criteria above.
- Social Media Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like should not be used as a source unless absolutely necessary; and then only in a narrow set of circumstances such as a quote from a government official or department that be verified through other sources. Even then checked with an Instructor.
- Web pages are susceptible to both accidental and deliberate alteration and may move or disappear with no notice.
- Print out or download all pages you plan to use in your research so that your bibliography will be complete and accurate.
- Are you sure the Web is where you want to be? It may take an hour to find the answer to a question on the Web that would take a Reference Librarian two minutes to find. When in doubt, ask a Librarian or instructor.