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The amount of readily accessible information has increased dramatically in recent years. Information sources are now available both in print and on the Internet. It is very important to critically evaluate the information you find to ensure quality.
Critical evaluation is particularly important when considering web sites and other Internet sources. Unlike most print sources, most information you find on the Internet has not gone through any type of editorial review process. Anyone, with or without knowledge of a topic, can create a web site on that topic and publish it on the Internet.
Web sites found using online databases and subject directories tend to be of higher quality than sites found via searches in Google and other Internet search engines. This is because the sites indexed in databases and directories have usually been carefully reviewed for quality and relevance to specific subjects, whereas sites indexed by search engines are indexed automatically, without regard for quality of content.
Keep the following issues in mind as you evaluate an information source, whether in print or on the Internet:
Author or Producer
Who is the author? What other books and articles have they written? What have other authors written about the author? If the source is a book, look for a book review. If it's an article, look for other articles on the same topic that criticize or support the author's thesis.
In the case of many Internet sources, the producer of the information is not an individual author but an organization or institution. The domain address of a web site can provide clues to the type of organization that produced it. For example:
Bias and Objectivity
Look closely at the writing. Is the author considering the various sides of an issue, while making a reasoned case for a particular point of view? Or is the writing merely expressing the author's subjective bias, with no evidence and reasoned argumentation to back it up? All writing is biased to some extent, but is the author making a reasonable effort to be objective and fair? Is the purpose to inform and persuade the reader, or merely to express a personal opinion without regard to reason and evidence?
Support and Documentation
Can you tell where the author gathered the information? Is the writing based on first-hand observation? Interviews? Other books, articles or web sites? Are references (i.e. footnotes, endnotes and/or a bibliography) provided? Are the references clear and accurate so you can locate the referenced sources in the library or on the Internet?
High-quality information sources don’t necessarily include formal references, but the number of references provides a clue to the type of information source. Popular books, articles in magazines and newspapers, and web sites produced for the general public usually don’t include footnotes, endnotes or bibliographies, although they often informally quote or refer to other information sources. Scholarly books and articles are almost always meticulously documented with extensive references.
Currency and Timeliness
When was the information published, created and/or last updated? With books, magazines and journals the date of publication is easy to find. When considering a web site, check to see if it has been updated recently. But remember that a recent update to the site does not necessarily prove that the information is current. Of course, this is also true of print sources that are merely reissues or reprints of older works.
The topic for which you are gathering information will to some extent determine the importance of currency. For example, in the case of a scientific topic that may be affected by the latest research findings, the information needs to be very current. But if you’re researching a historical event, or a work of art or literature, the most timely information may be found in primary sources written at the time or shortly after the event occurred or the work was created.
If you have questions about how to evaluate web sites or other information sources, or how to find high-quality sources for your research, please don’t hesitate to ask the Librarian at the Reference Desk for assistance, or Ask a Reference Librarian by E-mail. The Reference Desk is staffed at all times while the Library is open.
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