Kresge Library

Evaluating Web Sites for Use
in a Academic Paper/Publication
Try evaluating these web sites on your own:

Then, look at this evaluation7 of these sites.

Anyone with the technical know-how and access to the right resources can put up a web site. There is no review board or fact-checking body that is responsible for policing material that is posted to the web. This is different from most print publications, which may go through a peer review process. So, when you are using material that you have located on the web, you should ask yourself the question "Do I think this information is reliable?"

Poor verification of web information led the Michigan Studies Weekly, a publication distributed to 3rd and 4th graders across the state, to claim in the 2002, week 15 issue that there are whales in Lake Michigan! The journalist had based her entire article on a single web site she had found (originally at: http://www.geocities.com/lakemichiganwhales) which is no longer available. However, there is a web archive of the Lake Michigan Whale Watching website . You can see that the author had not done research to verify her facts. Don’t be fooled, check your sources for reliability. Note: Michigan Studies Weekly later had to issue a retraction of the whale story.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you are reviewing any potential source of information, be it a print publication, internet site, personal interview or whatever:

1. Accuracy - Are statements on the web site accurate?

This can be a little difficult to determine if you are only relying on a single web site for your information. That is why it is important to use multiple sources in your research, and ensure that some of them are from respected publication or databases. If you have data you’ve obtained from a reliable publication and it is not in agreement with the web site (or other questionable resource) you are using, you can bet the web resource is the less accurate (or reliable or believable) of the two.

2. Authority - From where does the web site originate?

When evaluating a web site, this is the most important criteria. Unfortunately, determining a sites authority can often prove the most difficult step in evaluating a web site. In general, you'll want to make sure the web page has an author cited with responsibility for writing the article/page and determine if the author is an authority on the topic. You'll also need to determine if the site the page is hosted on is credible. If it is just a personal web page, you should be dubious as to the veracity and usefulness of its content. If it's a single page in a larger site that you have determined to be a credible source for information on a topic (for instance, a page about emphysema located somewhere in the web site of the American Lung Association) then its location on a credible site lends the particular page some authority. This is not as easy as it may sound. Try to look for a sponsor or host of the site, and then look in a resource like the “Encyclopedia of Associations” (kept at the reference desk) to make sure that the association is real (after all, anybody can invent an impressive sounding name) and that the URL of the web site you are at actually matches the URL listed for that organization in the Encyclopedia of Associations. Again, anyone can steal the images, headers, etc from a real web site, post it on their own, and make it look like the real thing (like the current eBay scams that are doing exactly this).

3. Objectivity - Are issues presented objectively?

If an issue is controversial, how many sides are presented? If a web page is obviously presenting a persuasive argument, and not treating the issue objectively, then this should give you pause. For instance, if you were researching the effects of various drugs on humans, the NORML1 web site's facts are likely to be considerably incongruent with those of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy2. Both sides are presenting their information in an attempt to convince you of something, so the facts and arguments presented on either site must be carefully evaluated and verified.

4. Currency - When was the web site last updated?

Does the site contain outdated information (if applicable to your area of study)? Is there some information indicating when the web page was first published? Is there, likewise, an indication of when it was last edited/updated? One of the great strengths of the web as a distribution medium over print resources is the speed with which information can be created and distributed. Whereas a print article may languish for months in a review process, a web page can be posted as soon as it has been completely written, or even put up incrementally as the author finishes bits!

5. Coverage - Is the issue or topic covered completely? Are there gaps?

Does the author seem to have a grasp of the overall issue s/he is writing about? Are there glaring omissions in the web page that may make you reconsider hurdle #2, Authority or #3, Objectivity?

Conclusion

A good rule of thumb is, after considering the five questions above, when in doubt, don't use it. A reference librarian can usually help you locate more credible information in less time than it takes to verify the usefulness of a web page.

It can seem easier to find a web page on a topic than to find a printed article or at first glance. Most of you are familiar with your favorite search engine, and you may find its interface less cluttered, the results easier to navigate, and enjoy results free of field-specific jargon when compared to the resources the library web page provides. However, the time you "save" by using the internet to identify resources is generally going to be more than counter-balanced by the time it takes to evaluate the credibility of a web page.


1. http://www.norml.org
2. http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov
3. http://www.martinlutherking.org
4. http://www.ihr.org/books/hoggan/Myth_TOC.html
5. http://pubs.wri.org/pubs_content_text.cfm?ContentID=1308
6. http://www.medical-library.net/sites/_aspartame_disease.html
7. Answer key for this exercise


Created on 12/12/06 by 2/7/03 by Robert Slater / Last updated on 8/25/13 by Robert Slater
Oakland University

Oakland University, Kresge Library
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