Finding Information on the Internet: A TutorialEvaluating Web Pages:
Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask
UC Berkeley - Teaching Library Internet Workshops
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Evaluating web pages skillfully requires you to do two things at once:
This page is organized to combine the two techniques into a process that begins with looking at your search results from a search engine or other source, follows through by investigating the content of page, and extends beyond the page to what others may say about the page or its author(s).
1. What can the URL tell you?
Questions to ask: What are the implications? Is it somebody's personal page? Personal pages are not necessarily "bad," but you need to investigate the author carefully.
For personal pages, there is no publisher or domain owner vouching for the information in the page.
What type of domain does it come from ?
(educational, nonprofit, commercial, government, etc.)
- Is the domain extension appropriate for the content?
- Government sites: look for .gov, .mil
- Educational sites: look for .edu
(Note that this can include personal student and faculty pages as well as official college and university pages)
- Nonprofit organizations: look for .org
(Note that this is no longer restricted to nonprofits)
- Many country codes, such as .us, .uk. and .de, are no longer tightly controlled and may be misused. Look at the country code, but also use the techniques in sections 2 and 4 below to see who published the web page.
Look for appropriateness. What kind of information source do you think is most reliable for your topic? Is it published by an entity that makes sense?
Who "published" the page?
You can rely more on information that is published by the source:
- Look for New York Times news from www.nytimes.com
- Look for health information from any of the agencies of the National Institute of Health on sites with nih somewhere in the domain name.
2. Scan the perimeter of the page, looking for answers to these questions:
Questions to ask: What are the implications? Who wrote the page?
- Look for the name of the author, or the name of the organization, institution, agency, or whatever who is responsible for the page
- An e-mail contact is not enough
- If there is no personal author, look for an agency or organization that claims responsibility for the page.
- If you cannot find this, locate the publisher by truncating back the URL (see technique above). Does this publisher claim responsibility for the content? Does it explain why the page exists in any way?
- Web pages are created with a purpose in mind by some person or agency or entity.
- You are looking for someone who claims accountability and responsibility for the content.
- An e-mail address with no additional information about the author is not sufficient for assessing the author's credentials.
- If this is all you have, try emailing the author and asking politely for more information about him/her.
Is the page dated? Is it current enough?
- Is it "stale" or "dusty" information on a time-sensitive or evolving topic?
- CAUTION: Undated factual or statistical information is no better than anonymous information. Don't use it without confirmation.
- How recent the date needs to be depends on your needs.
- For some topics you want current information.
- For others, you want information put on the web near the time it became known.
- In some cases, the importance of the date is to tell you whether the page author is still maintaining an interest in the page, or has abandoned it.
What are the author's credentials on this subject?
- Does the purported background or education look like someone who is qualified to write on this topic?
- Might the page be by a hobbyist, self-proclaimed expert, or enthusiast?
- Is the page merely an opinion? Is there any reason you should believe its content more than any other page?
- Is the page a rant, an extreme view, possibly distorted or exaggerated?
- If you cannot find strong, relevant credentials, look very closely at documentation of sources (next section).
- Anyone can put anything on the web for pennies in just a few minutes. Your task is to distinguish between the reliable and questionable.
- Many web pages are opinion pieces offered in a vast public forum.
- You should hold the author to the same degree of credentials, authority, and documentation that you would expect from something published in a reputable print resource (book, journal article, good newspaper).
3. Look for indicators of quality information:
Questions to ask: What are the implications? Are sources documented with footnotes or links?
- Where did the author get the information?
- As in published scholarly/academic journals and books, you should expect documentation.
- If there are links to other pages as sources, are they to reliable sources?
- Do the links work?
In scholarly/research work, the credibility of most writings is proven through footnote documentation or other means of revealing the sources of information. Saying what you believe without documentation is not much better than just expressing an opinion or a point of view. What credibility does your research need?
- An exception can be journalism from highly reputable newspapers. But these are not scholarly. Check with your instructor before using this type of material.
- Links that don't work, or that lead to other weak or fringe pages, do not help strengthen the credibility of your research.
If reproduced information (from another source), is it complete, not altered, not fake or forged?
- Is it retyped? If so, it could easily be altered.
- Is it reproduced from another publication?
- Are permissions to reproduce and copyright information provided?
- Is there a reason there are not links to the original source if it is online (instead of reproducing it)?
- You may have to find the original to be sure a copy of something is not altered and is complete.
- Look at the URL: is it from the original source?
- If you find a legitimate article from a reputable journal or other publication, it should be accompanied by the copyright statement and/or permission to reprint. If it is not, be suspicious.
- Try to find the source. If the URL of the document is not to the original source, it is likely that it is illegally reproduced, and the text could be altered, even with the copyright information present.
Are there links to other resources on the topic?
- Are the links well chosen, well organized, and/or evaluated/annotated?
- Do the links work?
- Do the links represent other viewpoints?
- Do the links (or absence of other viewpoints) indicate a bias?
- Many well developed pages offer links to other pages on the same topic that they consider worthwhile.
- Pages that offer opposing viewpoints as well as their own are more likely to be balanced and unbiased than pages that offer only one view. Anything not said that would be said if all points of view were represented?
- Always look for bias in text and links, especially when you agree with what's being said.
4. What do others say?
Questions to ask: What are the implications? Who links to the page?
- Are there many links?
- What kinds of sites link to it?
- What do they say?
- Sometimes a page is linked to only by other parts of its own site (not much of a recommendation).
- Sometimes a page is linked to by both its fans and its detractors. Read both points of view.
Is the page listed in one or more reputable directories or pages?
- Good directories include a tiny fraction of the web, and inclusion in a directory is therefore noteworthy.
- But read what the directory says! It may not be 100% positive.
What do others say about the author or responsible authoring body?
"Googling" someone can be revealing. Be sure to consider the source. If the viewpoint is radical or controversial, expect to find detractors.
Also see which blogs refer to the site, and what they say about it. Google Blog Search is a good way to do this; search on the site's name, author, or URL.
5. Does it all add up?
Questions to ask: So what? What are the implications? Why was the page put on the web?
- Inform, give facts, give data?
- Explain, persuade?
- Sell, entice?
These are some of the reasons to think of. The web is a public place, open to all. You need to be aware of the entire range of human possibilities of intentions behind web pages. Might it be ironic? Satire or parody?
- Think about the "tone" of the page.
- Humorous? Parody? Exaggerated? Overblown arguments?
- Outrageous photographs or juxtaposition of unlikely images?
- Arguing a viewpoint with examples that suggest that what is argued is ultimately not possible.
It is easy to be fooled, and this can make you look foolish in turn. Is this as credible and useful as the resources (books, journal articles, etc.) available in print or online through the library?
- Are you being completely fair? Too harsh? Totally objective? Requiring the same degree of "proof" you would from a print publication?
- Is the site good for some things and not for others?
- Are your hopes biasing your interpretation?
- What is your requirement (or your instructor's requirement) for the quality of reliability of your information?
- In general, published information is considered more reliable than what is on the web. But many, many reputable agencies and publishers make great stuff available by "publishing" it on the web. This applies to most governments, most institutions and societies, many publishing houses and news sources.
- But take the time to check it out.
The World Wide Web can be a great place to accomplish research on many topics. But putting documents or pages on the web is easy, cheap or free, unregulated, and unmonitored (at least in the USA). There is a famous Steiner cartoon published in the New Yorker (July 5, 1993) with two dogs sitting before a terminal looking at a computer screen; one says to the other "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." The great wealth that the Internet has brought to so much of society is the ability for people to express themselves, find one another, exchange ideas, discover possible peers worldwide they never would have otherwise met, and, through hypertext links in web pages, suggest so many other people's ideas and personalities to anyone who comes and clicks. There are some real "dogs" out there, but there's also great treasure.
Therein lies the rationale for evaluating carefully whatever you find on the Web. The burden is on you - the reader - to establish the validity, authorship, timeliness, and integrity of what you find. Documents can easily be copied and falsified or copied with omissions and errors -- intentional or accidental. In the general World Wide Web there are no editors (unlike most print publications) to proofread and "send it back" or "reject it" until it meets the standards of a publishing house's reputation. Most pages found in general search engines for the web are self-published or published by businesses small and large with motives to get you to buy something or believe a point of view. Even within university and library web sites, there can be many pages that the institution does not try to oversee. The web needs to be free like that!! And you, if you want to use it for serious research, need to cultivate the habit of healthy skepticism, of questioning everything you find with critical thinking.
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Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask
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