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Evaluating Information: Information from the Internet

Introduction


All websites should be evaluated for a number of different criteria, especially if you are planning to use the information found there in a course assignment or other scholarly research.

In evaluating content on the web, you will look for many of the same characteristics that you look for in other resources, and evaluate based on some additional criteria, such as the host of the website and functionality of the website.

Evaluation is especially important for using web sources for research assignments, but it is also important to view websites critically even if your research is only for personal purposes.

created by Curtin Library, Perth, Australia.

Subtitles/Closed Captions - text on screen.

What is fake news?


Fake news has been around for a long time but the US Presidential election 2016 highlighted the phenomenon. Fake news is defined by the Collins English Dictionary Online as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”.  

Whether researching on the web for academic or personal purposes, the ability to distinguish fake news from reliable, accurate news sources is an important skill to have.

From IFLA, International Federation of Library Associations

Can I use Wikipedia?


  • Wikipedia is a good place to start to get an overview of a topic as the majority of entries are written clearly and simply, making them easy to understand when you have no prior knowledge of a subject.
  • It's fast - there are Wikipedia entries on thousands of topics available to find through a quick Google search
  • However there is no way to know who the author of a Wikipedia entry is, meaning you cannot depend on the information they have provided being accurate. When undertaking academic research, the authority of the source that you are using needs to be verified.
  • You might find that the most useful part of a Wikipedia entry can be found at the bottom of the article where the author may have listed the references they used to create the entry.
  • Apply the Who, Why, When, Where, How and What evaluation criteria to these sources and if you find them to be reliable and credible then you could consider using them in your work rather than the information on Wikipedia itself.

Criteria for website evaluation
created by University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Currency
Is the information up-to-date? Remember that just because the webpage has been updated recently, that doesn't mean that all of the information on the webpage has necessarily been updated. Cross check the information with other sources. 
Accuracy
Current information is more likely to be accurate, but not always. Even if it is current, be sure to cross check the information with other sources.
Coverage
Does the website cover the topic thoroughly, and is it comprehensive? If not, do you have other sources you can use to fill in the gaps in coverage? Be sure the source has the kind of coverage of the topic that you want before you decide to use it.
Authority
Who authored the content on the web page? What are their credentials? Are they an expert in the field? Depending upon how you are using this information, you want to be sure that the author is a credible and reliable source of information in the field. One way to determine this is to look at what kinds of websites link to the website you are evaluating. The more credible and authoritative those websites are, the more credible and authoritative the one you are evaluating is likely to be.
Host
Is the host a reputable organization or individual? Remember, the author is not always the host of the website. The author could have some sort of sponsor, and that could mean that there were terms that he/she had to agree to in order to publish on that site. When evaluating for authority, pay attention to the website host or sponsor in addition to the actual author. For example, it is usually best to stay away from information hosted on corporate websites, because for-profit companies can have a hidden agenda that serves their bottom line of profit. On the other hand, the information on a corporate website might meet all of the other criteria here. If the corporation's mission is to spread accurate and objective information, and you can corroborate the information with other sources, it may be acceptable to use. Use your best judgment.
Objectivity
Does the information reflect an author's bias? If the author has a position, is it well reasoned and argued and supported by empirical evidence? If you are going to use a source that is biased, you want to make sure that the position reflected is supported by ample evidence. You also want to acknowledge any bias in your paper or article.
Relevancy
Is the information related to the topic you are researching? You may find something to be interesting, but make sure it has a place in your main argument
Functionality
Is the website easy to navigate and use? You may find good information on a website, but if it's very messy and difficult to find that information, it would make it difficult for your readers to later trace those citations and figure out the exact source and location of the information that you used.
Ads
If the website has a lot of ads (especially if they are particularly prominent or distracting), you may not want to use it as a source. The information may be accurate and authoritative, but the appearance may undermine its credibility. Remember, what will your lecturer or readers think of this website? What does it say about a source of information if it contains advertisements for commercial products and services, for example? Many people might think the information is biased, even if it is not.

What about Google Search Results?


Search engines such as Google use algorithms to filter, or tailor, the search results you see. Based on previous searches you have done - the sites you have viewed, what you clicked on and other data that can be gathered from your browser - Google will give you search results tailored for you using a 'relevance algorithm'. That is why you will often notice advertisements or recommendations for products and services based on where you shop and what you watch online. 

So the exact same search, using exactly the same search words, can return different results for different individuals. Are you comfortable with the idea that a computer is making decisions about what information you are shown in your search results?

Eli Pariser is the author of the book The Filter Bubble and he gave a TED talk based on that book. Click on the video to view this fascinating TED talk and learn more about how filter bubbles may impact how you search for information online.