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Internet Research Guide
Part 4


Evaluating Web information


After using a search engine to gather a list of web sites that might be useful as you search for information from the Web, you face the most difficult task involved with Internet research: evaluating information. There is no shortage of information on the Internet. The great challenge is to find what is useful and what is appropriate for each of your research projects. This begins by thinking critically about the nature of web sites. Think about how to go about evaluating trustworthy sites from untrustworthy ones.

Where to start
Look for an author
Information to avoid
Experts
Practice: Evaluating sources

Where to start

The best and worst thing about the Internet is that there are no restrictions regarding who can post to listservs, who can join newsgroups, who can contribute to discussion groups, or who can design and post his or her own web page.1 This means that the Internet is public and accessible by many people but that the quality and integrity of what is available on the Internet is not always trustworthy.

One of your tasks as a researcher is to choose among reliable and unreliable web sources. This often does not require anything more than knowing the web site address and its affiliation. A general rule is that web sites with affiliations to non-Internet sources are often more reliable than those without such affiliation. If you are looking for information on current events, for example, any web site for a major newspaper (like the Washington Post) or a television network (like CNN) is likely to be as reliable as the actual, non-Internet entities themselves.

Contrast this situation to information you might find on someone's personal homepage (like www.jasonshomepage.com). There is no external means of gauging the quality or reliability of information you might find on a personal page. This is not to say that all personal web pages are worthless. But when you are choosing among a variety of potential sources, and the choice is between www.cnn.com and www.jasonshomepage.com, always opt for the recognizable source attached to some non-Internet organization.

It comes down to the fact that a web site maintained by CNN or by a government department or by a university, is putting its reputation on the line when it offers information with its name attached as the source.


1 Universal internet access and the world-wide nature of the world wide web are misleading terms because not everybody in the world has access to the web or even to a computer. This technology is limited, in many cases, to the middle and upper classes in wealthy, industrial nations.

Look for an author

Web sites, like books, always have authors. However, it is sometimes hard to tell who the author of a certain web page is; often there are many authors. The point is to try to determine who or what the source for the information you've found is. And recall that sometimes the author of a site will not necessarily be a named person. It may be information posted in the name of a corporation, agency, or organization.

Pages on CNN's web site will often carry a copyright simply in the company's name, not necessarily in the name of some individual. Look for the copyright notice on this illustration.

News stories posted on a site like CNN, however, will often have a named author just as they would in a newspaper.

Many times, if you link to a site from a search engine, you will find yourself in the "middle" of the site itself. Almost as if you'd picked a book off the library shelf and simply opened it at random, rather than beginning at page one. Just as page 200 in any given book will likely not give you the name of the book's author, so many web pages within a web site will not necessarily name an author. However, there is a trick you can try.

If you have linked to an address that is extremely long and found information you might want to use, but you want to first determine the source or author, try eliminating the last part, or parts, of the address to see if you can find a page "above" the one you've got. That is, imagine you are looking for more general pages than the specific one you've found in hopes of determining author or source. If you searched for William Blake using a search engine and this address came up, www.nwe.ufl.edu/~jsnart/blakeproject/page3.html, you'd have found a page in my own web site dealing with William Blake. However that particular page does not give my name, affiliation, or information regarding my own qualifications in the field of Blake studies. So you can begin eliminating parts of the address, like "page3.html," www.nwe.ufl.edu/~jsnart/blakeproject/, or "blakeproject/page3.html," www.nwe.ufl.edu/~jsnart/ until you get to a point where the address still works, but the page you find is general enough to give you some idea of me as source and author for the information.

In cases where eliminating web address tails doesn't work, or where you simply cannot identify an author or source, you might want to try using email to contact a general email address in order to find out the specific details regarding a piece of information you've found.

Many web pages provide email addresses that you can use to ask general questions regarding the web site. You may even be able to send an email requesting information about other, specific email addresses for individuals who have authored pages or who can provide information on certain parts of web pages.

Information to avoid

Since it is impossible to formulate guidelines for each individual research project you might be involved with, keep in mind a general question that will likely apply to many research situations:
  • Is someone's reputation at stake?


If you are not sure whose reputation is at stake, or if anything is at stake at all regarding information you find on the Web, then what you've found is likely not a good source to include in a research project. This is another way of distinguishing between reliable web sites operated by corporations, agencies, organizations, etc. and web sites operated by individuals. Clearly if the American Cancer Society posts its mission statement or factual information on its web site, it puts its reputation on the line. But if I decide to put something on my personal page about cancer or smoking, then there is no professional reputation to be upheld. That is, it is less likely that I will have invested time, energy or resources in verifying facts or developing opinions than an organization whose reputation depends on the reliability of those facts and opinions.

This is not to say that all personal web pages are unreliable, and that any individual operating his or her own web page cares nothing for what they put online. The point is that the difference between fact or opinion on a personal web page is often a direct reflection of the professional reputation of the page owner/designer. So given the choice between www.cnn.com and www.jasonshomepage.com, or between www.ufl.edu and www.jasons_florida_page.com, always opt for the site whose reputation is most clearly tied to an organization operating the site.

Experts

Keeping in mind that for reliable facts and for carefully thought out opinions a web page tied to a non-Internet entity will usually yield better results for certain kinds of research, there may be instances in which the experts in your field are not always what we'd equate with the traditional notions of an expert. For example, sometimes personal, individual experience can qualify someone as an expert even when that person has no other formal qualifications. So friends and family can, in certain instances, by considered experts, and their knowledge and experience can function as research material.

Perhaps you are researching trends in women trying to balance work and family. You may need to look no further than your own family to gain insight. In the same way, there may be some limited instances in which sources like personal web pages can yield more useful (not to be equated with "reliable") information. If you are researching, for example, places to stay while in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, you could visit sites run by the Canadian National Parks Service or the Jasper, Alberta Chamber of Commerce. But if your search in one of the web's search engines yields something like www.jasonshomepage.com/jaspertrip.html then it might be worthwhile to take a look.

This address leads you to my (fictional) personal homepage, and, specifically, the section I have on Jasper National Park. Many people post what they think might be useful information on personal web pages for people interested in the same kinds of things that they are interested in. And often, more personal pages will yield information which is not geared towards profit-making and so will be less biased towards revealing only positive information. In researching the quality of Honda automobiles, of course you'd want to visit the Honda homepage. However, we know that everything on the Honda homepage is going to be explicitly or implicitly in praise of Honda. To balance your research, you'd likely want to visit some kind of consumer reporting site (still a major, reliable Internet research source) but you may also be able to find information someone has posted on a personal web page regarding either their love or hatred for their Honda. (Remember though that such a "personal" opinion cannot support an argument for or against the quality of Honda automobiles. You would always need facts from a reliable Internet site.)

It is interesting to note that many consumer reporting web sites rely on individual users to submit reviews of products or services they have used. These reviews can be either positive or negative and so presumably unbiased by corporate associations. Remember, however, that the Internet is not innocent. There is nothing to stop marketing agencies from submitting anonymous reviews in praise of products they are interested in selling. Conversely, that same marketing agency might just as easily submit negative reviews of the competition's products. So even unbiased information is rarely as genuine as it might at first seem.

Practice: Evaluating sources

Given the following topic, rate on a scale of 1 to 5 the probable usefulness of each site: 1 is to be the least useful, 5 is to be the most useful. Imagine that the addresses listed have come up after you've done a search using one of the web's search engines. Discuss your ratings in your class or with a peer.

You must write a research paper on the affects of alcohol on verbal skills. You search for "alcohol," "verbal skills," and "drinking" using www.excite.com. These are just some of the results:

Stoli Central 2.1.
My word, is it us or does the Internet change faster than an Indianapolis 500 pit crew changes tires? New technology. New computer languages. New Stoli Central 2.1?
http://www.stoli.com/
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Your Good Health.
"No matter how successful a businessman or woman may be, how enthusiastic or involved they may be in their company's future, how great the depth of skills, or whatever other talents they may possess . . . it all amounts to naught without good health." Ron Clarke, athletic champion
http://www.powerup.com.au/~mdavey/index.htm
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Welcome to OADAP.
Oregon Office of Alcohol And Drug Abuse Programs
http://www.oadap.hr.state.or.us/
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40-oz Warriors.
The 40 oz Warriors official web page. The mission: consume all the alcohol on the planet.
http://members.tripod.com/the40ozwarriors/index.htm
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Prsawelcome.
New Orleans Chapter PUBLIC RELATIONS SOCIETY OF AMERICA "The PR practitioner today needs to be a researcher, counselor, strategic planner, educator, communicator and cheerleader."--Pat Jackson, past president, PRSA (Click on underlined words to get more information about that subject)
http://www.prsaneworleans.org/
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Drunk Driving.
"I drive better when I've had a few drinks." Yeah, right. How many times have you heard someone make that statement? It's the alcohol talking. Only a fool would think that alcohol improves driving ability, and here's why: Alcohol abuse impairs the performance of complex mental and motor functions, which is why it's associated with such a wide range of accidents and injuries.
http://www.glness.com/ndhs/driving.html
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The Gate House - Homepage.
There have been Visitors Here The Gate House, a non-profit organization serving women and men recovering from alcoholism and other drug dependencies. The corporation's residential programs, known as The Gate House for Men and The Gate House for Women, are based on the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and principles of a holistic approach to recovery.
http://www.gatehouse.org/index.htm
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