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ACE Language Institute Library Resources

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Evaluating Sources

Web Resources

Evaluating Web Sites

Finding good information on the web can be tricky.  The Internet, especially the WWW is a publishing as well as a communications medium, and the difference between the two has become increasingly muddied. When evaluating web sites, think about journalism's 5 Ws and 1 H:

Who created the page? Do they have a clear agenda?
What is the content?
When was it last updated and/or created?
Where was it published?
Why was it published?  For what purpose?
How is the information written?  Professionally?  Biased?   

Who?

A good page has a stated author.  The author could be an individual, an organization or a company but be skeptical if there is no author stated.  Better yet, the author's credentials ought to be stated. Just as we saw when looking at journals and magazines, knowing not only who the author is but the author's affiliation, background and credentials helps you determine the validity of the content.   It doesn't really help in deciding if the page has validity if you know the author's name is John Doe but you don't know his qualifications for publishing a web page on nuclear science.  John Doe could be a 13 year old with an interest in nuclear science but no formal training or research.   Even better would be to find some address or link to his or her email where you could contact the author.  This shows that the author is willing to be held accountable for the content of the page.  Usually, the author is listed at the bottom of the first page.  Try not to confuse the author of the homepage with the author(s) of links from the homepage.  The author may not be responsible for the entire content. For example, even though there is a common look to the MSU web site, each college and department may be responsible for their page.   Make sure you get the author of the information you are using.

What?

The next thing you ask is what exactly are you looking at?  Find out what the page covers and whether your topic is covered in enough depth to be useful.  A web page can have a confusing mixture of different types of information each with a different purpose.  Many web pages have a lot of advertising, games, gimmicks and plain old junk mixed in with seemingly useful information.  One good way to find out what a page is about is to look for a statement of purpose (the “why").

When?

        Information on the web changes daily.  Many people publish web pages and then don't maintain their currency and don't bother to take them off the web when the information becomes out-of-date.  How many times have you gotten the message "File not found?"   It is very frustrating to click on what you think appears to be a useful site and discover that it has moved or is no longer available.  For these reasons, you will want to be cautious in finding current information. Good web pages have both the date the page was originally created and the date when it was last updated.   It is recommended that you do not use a web site that doesn't state when the page was last updated.  Some pages will state when it was created but not when it was last updated.  If the page was created recently (about 1-2 years) then it may be okay to use.  However, if it was created a long time ago and there is no indication of when it was last updated, it may be old information or it is an indication that it is not being maintained.

You will usually find a statement regarding when it was last updated at the bottom of the page.  Make sure you look for a statement of currency on the page from which you pull your information, not from the links off that page.  

Where?

            You might also look for a statement regarding where the page was published.  This is not always (actually rarely) stated explicitly.  There are not web publishers in the same way there are book publishers, who have to protect their reputation as publishers of reliable information.  No one is responsible for making sure you get accurate information on the web.  There are several clues you can look for in making your judgment.  Some of those clues have already been covered -- currency of information, author's credentials, and content of page.  Another clue is to find out where the page was published.  For example, many studies done by professors are published through their university's homepage.  If no author is stated but it is shown that it's published by a university, you might conclude it has more validity than if the same study were published by a 10-year-old through Geocities.

Why?

            A page that aims to educate the public will have a mission statement or a statement of purpose.  Usually this is located somewhere around the top of the page.  If there is a purpose statement, read this statement to see if its purpose is compatible with your purpose.  You might also examine the URL or web address.  Remember, an address with "org" in it is an organization and thus, probably non-profit with the mission to educate (although not always, as these credit counseling sites have shown).   An address with "com" in it on the other hand, is a company page, which is probably trying to sell you something or at least will include advertising as part of the page.  

How?

            "How" refers to how the information is presented.  Good web page design is important and increasingly a factor in clarity and ease of use.  Is it presented with spaceships flying across the screen?  If yes, then its purpose is probably not too academic.  Is it designed professionally or are there a lot of clashing colors?  Is it easy to read?  Is the language of the page professional or is slang the language of preference?   Are there grammatical and spelling errors?

            "How" also refers to whether or not the information is biased.  Bias is not necessarily a bad thing remember.  It depends on the type of assignment you have.  Either way, you want to be attentive to bias.  Sometimes bias is obvious such as a page advocating doctor-assisted suicide.  Its purpose is to advocate a viewpoint.  Other times bias is much more subtle.  Most authors have a viewpoint of their own when writing something, though they may purport to be giving an objective view, and that viewpoint may seep through in ways of which they are not aware.

          The above information was based on tutorials created in 1999 by MSU-COT librarian Sarah Kaip; further developed and modified in 2003/04 by MSU-Bozeman librarian Richard Wojtowicz; and updated and expanded in 2006 by MSU-Bozeman librarian Christy Donaldson.