The Web has become the go-to source for many people doing all sorts of research these days. However, judging the truthfulness of information that you find online can be a bit problematic, especially if you’re looking for credible material you can cite in a research paper or academic project. Fiction and reality are not the same thing, but on the Web, it’s getting increasingly hard to tell the difference.
To Cite or Not to Cite - That is the Question
So how do you divide the wheat from the chaff? How can you tell if something you’re reading is true and reliable and worthy of a footnote? There are a number of litmus tests that you can put Web information through to ensure its trustworthiness.
Who’s In Charge?Determining the authority of any particular site is especially vital if you’re planning on using it as a source for an academic paper or research project. Ask yourself these questions about the website in question:
- Is it absolutely clear which company or organization is responsible for the information on the site?
- Is there a link to a page describing what the company or organization does and the people who are involved (an “About Us” page)?
- Is there a valid way of making sure the company or organization is legit – meaning, is this a real place that has real contact information (email only is not enough)?
Are You Telling Me The Truth?
Eventually while you're on the Web, you will run into information that is not entirely true. In addition to determining the authority of a site, you also need to figure out if it’s presenting accurate information. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Can I easily figure out who wrote the information?
- Are all factual claims clearly substantiated, that is, are there cited (linked) sources?
- Are there any glaring grammatical and spelling errors? This could indicate that the content is not credible.
- How long ago was the page updated? Is there a date stamp on the article somewhere? You’ll need this especially if you’re using MLA-style citation.
- Can you verify the expertise of the author? Are the writer’s qualifications clearly stated somewhere on the site?
Are You Selling Me Something?
Say for instance you’re researching power motor accidents. Information from the power motor industry would not necessarily be the most neutral of information sources. So in order to find a non-biased information source, you’ll need to determine neutrality. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is there an overwhelming bias in the information? Does the writing seem fair and balanced? Or is the writing overly slanted towards a particular point of view?
- Is the URL appropriate to the content? You should be able to figure out from the site address who the site belongs to, since most organizations and businesses put their name in the URL. This is a good way to determine quickly if the site is legit for your purposes; for example, if you’re researching mad cow disease you probably don’t want to get information from the Beef Farmers of America.
- Are the ads clearly separated from the content?
If the answers to these questions raise doubts in your mind about the site’s integrity, then you’ll need to reconsider this Web site as a credible source. Any site that has an inappropriate bias or a hazy line between the advertisements and the content is NOT a good site to use in a research paper or academic project.
It's Just Common Sense
Use your best judgement when considering a Web site for inclusion in your research project or academic paper. Just because something made its way on to the Web absolutely does not mean that it’s credible, reliable, or even true. It is absolutely essential that you put any Web site through the evaluation hoops mentioned above before you cite it as a source.