Many students like to use websites as sources for their research papers. This is fine, but it is important that students evaluate each website to be sure it is an appropriate and valid source of information. To supplement this guide, more information on evaluating sources can be found through the links on the right hand side.
The MLA Handbook and several other books held by the library offer some great advice on how to evaluate sources. In addition, there are handouts available on evaluating websites.
Evaluating resources is part of the research process. Students and instructors want to have the most accurate, reliable information possible. This is essential in both the academic world and the business world. Much like most people wouldn't choose a random political candidate, do not choose just any website or resource. Evaluating the source ensures the information contained within is unbiased, accurate, current (if necessary), and something which can be relied upon.
The most important types of sources to evaluate are internet sources, and in particular, websites. Books and periodicals must go through various review processes before being published, which increases the possibility that it was written by someone familiar with the subject.
When using online journals or online databases, make sure to look for the words "scholarly journal", "peer-reviewed", or "refereed". Those words show that the journal is reliable and articles are placed under the review of other experts in the field in addition to the writer.
Websites, unlike books and periodicals, can be published by anyone at any time, as long as they have the access to the internet and possibly the money to pay for the site. For example, a political candidate could create his or her own website and fill it with stories (true or false) about what they have accomplished. Alternatively, their rival could create a website and fill it with stories (true or false) about how their opponent failed in their promises. Neither site would be very high quality for research because it would be difficult to decipher which has the accurate information. In other words, both would be extremely biased. It would be far more difficult, expensive, and time consuming for a candidate to do the same in book format.
Also, it is important to evaluate websites because most instructors expect and require it. This is a critical thinking skill that may be extremely useful in the business world as well, allowing for the evaluation information sources before inaccurate information gets passed along to supervisors, co-workers, or clients.
Because websites are the sources that most frequently need evaluating, this guide will focus on evaluating websites. Much of the information, however, will be useful for evaluating any research source if necessary.
Evaluating for the authority of the author is probably one of the most important parts of evaluating resources. In order to evaluate authority, researchers look for who is responsible for the website.
Evaluating any source for objectivity is extremely important. By excluding biased information, it is possible to find information that may be more accurate and reliable. When a site is lacking in objectivity, it could be slanted toward one side or the other and probably does not show all of the facts that may be important to the topic.
It's rarely simple to find objectivity or bias. It requires careful reading all of the information provided. Remember to look at the author for authority--if they are a fast food company, information relating to the benefits of fast food is likely to be biased. Everyone has opinions, of course, but see if they treat the other side justly.
A quick tip for helping look for bias is to look at the domain name for the URL. If it ends with .edu (educational institutions), .gov (non-military government sites), .mil (military), or .org (nonprofit organizations), it may be more reliable. Endings such as .com (commercial), .info (information), and .net (network) can be purchased by anyone and should be considered more carefully. Having one of the above endings (such as .edu) does not mean evaluating the site can be skipped. It is just an aid to finding where the information is coming from.
Evaluating for quality is key to finding reliable websites. If the website is poorly written, than it may not be reliable. In general, an expert in a field will have some familiarity with writing about his or her subject. Also, a person devoted to the topic is more likely to spend time making a logical, well-designed website.
Evaluating for coverage is not as essential as the previous three areas, but it is still a good exercise. Coverage is looking at whether or not the site offers all of the information needed to make an informed decision or complete research.
Currency can be an essential element to look for, depending on what the topic is. This is looking at how recently the information has been updated, and how frequently it is updated.
The best place to look when searching for information about a site's updating frequency is the bottom of the page. The copyright symbol is often followed by a year or even an actual date. Content posted through blogs or similar types of websites may have a date and time attached to the posting. If there is no date where the copyright information is, check on other pages, like "About" or the home page. They may also have dates. It may not be a day, month, and year, but even a year can be helpful.
Not every field of study needs to have extremely current information. When writing about literature or history, it may not be as important, because classic literature does not change (though opinions of it can), and history does not change. On the other hand, writing about science or medicine needs to have the most current information because new research is conducted every day and things change quickly. Information in those fields may be inaccurate because the website has not been updated in three or four years.
Lastly is the relevance of the website. This may seem like common sense, but it is important to consciously evaluate it. Relevance in this instance refers to how applicable the content is to you and your assignment.
Like with many of the other criteria for evaluating websites, the relevance to can be found within the content and design of the site. Look at the navigation, treating it like a table of contents or index. Does it have anything relating to the topic? Look at the graphics--are they appropriate for your age group and topic?
For a college-level student, a site designed for high school- or elementary school-age children may not be appropriate for the majority of assignments. But, for a paper for a class in Early Childhood Education or Child Development, that website may be appropriate if it has necessary information. Use good judgment, and when in doubt, speak to a librarian or to your instructor!