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Evaluating Resources

If you have a computer, an Internet connection and time, you can find accurate and reliable information on any subject, right?

Maybe. When it comes to "accurate" and "reliable," not all sources are created equal. The Internet is like a virtual library, with one major difference. By the time a physical book is on the shelf, many professionals have verified its content. On the Web, anyone can publish. As a researcher, it's your task to make sure the information you use is reliable.

Start Smart

Before you start looking for information, carefully select your source. The Internet is not always the best place to begin. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What kind of information am I looking for?
  • Which sources would be the most helpful in finding that information?

The most common mistake students make is believing everything's on the Web, said John Henderson, a reference librarian at Ithaca College Libraries.

If you are searching for information on a current event, a reliable newspaper like the New York Times might fit the bill. If you are searching for population statistics, census reports may be your best bet. Both happen to be on the Internet, but you may also need sources that aren't. (Hint: see your librarian.)

Kathy Schrock, technology coordinator for Dennis-Yarmouth Regional Schools in Massachusetts, recommends creating a research organizer by outlining the main idea, purpose, synonyms and search strategies in a notebook. "This will save lots of time in the long run," Shrock said.




Questions to Ask

When exploring online sources, think about the following issues:

1. The Author

Is the author's name listed, along with his/her e-mail or street address? If no one takes credit for the work, its accuracy may be questionable.

Tip: You might find author information on another page of a site. To find your way back to the main page of a section or site, try "backwards deleting." If the address is http://www.site.com/section/section/page.htm, try deleting page.htm, then each section until you reach the right area.

What are the author's qualifications? Is he/she connected to a well-known institution (like a university)? Is the author an authority on your topic? If you can't find information on the site, try searching a book store, library or search engine for the author's name.

For more information on authorship, visit the Online Writing Lab.

2. The "Publisher"

Who is responsible for the site hosting your resource? Is it a university, a government agency, a not-for-profit organization or someone's personal page? An organization might post information without identifying the author. If so, can you rely on the publisher as reliable and accurate?

3. The Information

Consider the information itself.

  • Is the information current? What is the "last revised" date on the page?
  • Does the site have a lot of dead links?
  • Does the information seem slanted in any way, indicating a bias that is unfair or unsupported?
  • Does the site have spelling and grammar errors? (Signs of carelessness).
  • Has the site been given an award or high rating by a reputable group?

Cover Your Bases

Not sure whether a source is reliable? Get a second opinion. If several sources report the same information, the odds of accuracy are better.

"I recommend using common sense to question any answer on the Web," said Hope Tillman, Director of Libraries at Babson College. "And if at all possible, to find more than one result that corroborates the answer."

At the end of the day, you're the judge. If something seems fishy, it probably is. "When in doubt, doubt," Henderson said.

Additional Resources

The following guides offer useful tips for evaluating Web resources:




   --- J. Dunn and L. Zollinger

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