Students who are accustomed to doing research in libraries face new issues when they start doing research on the Internet. Before a book or journal appears in a university library, it has usually gone through a number of checks to make sure the information in it is reliable. For example, if you find a copy of Moby Dick in your university library, you can be sure you are getting a generally accepted version of the real thing.
But if you find a copy of Moby Dick on the Internet, you need to give some thought to where you found it, whether the person who put it on the Internet is a reliable authority on the subject (someone who can be trusted not to enter his or her own personal, political, or scholarly biases into the text), and whether your professor will accept your judgment of the reliability of that material.
There is no regulating body that monitors reliability of what is on the Internet.
Arguably, student researchers should always make these decisions, even about materials they find in the university library. However, judging the reliability of sources found on the Internet is crucial because there is no regulating body that monitors the reliability of what is on the Internet. Although there is so much information on the Internet that it can seem like a university library, it is actually more like a huge open-air market. In one corner there might be reliable sources from whom you can obtain valuable information.
But over in another corner there might be weirdos, whackos, and eccentrics, from whom anything you obtain is, at best, questionable. The problem is that on the Internet there is no way to tell the difference. Someone who wants to turn Moby Dick into a glorification of bloodsports or an animal rights tract can post a rewritten version with no indication of its differences from Melville’s original.
There’s a saying in Latin, caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware.” When it comes to doing your research on the Internet, the saying should be caveat internauta, or “let the surfer beware.”
Major points to consider when judging reliability
Here is a list of points to consider when you are trying to judge the reliability of information you find on the Internet:
Who is the author or sponsor of the page? On the page you are citing, or on a page linked to it, that individual or organisation should be identified, that individual’s qualifications should be apparent, and other avenues of verification should be open to you. For a good example of a reliable source, see “Notes about this document”.
On the other hand, a page created by a person or an organisation that does not provide this information is not a good source to cite.
Are there obvious reasons for bias? If the page is presented by a tobacco company consortium, you should be suspicious of its reports on the addictiveness of nicotine. Is there any advertising? If the page is sponsored by Acme Track Shoes, you should be suspicious of its claims for Acme track shoes’ performance.
Is contact information provided? If the only identification available is something cryptic, such as “Society for Ferruginous Retorts,” be suspicious of the page’s reliability. If the page is sponsored by a reputable person or organisation, there should be some other way to verify that reputation, such as an e-mail or postal address. (Note that a tilde (~) in the page’s address usually indicates a personal home page and may require more searching for reliability.)
Is there a copyright symbol on the page? If so, who holds the copyright?
Is this page a “zombie,” or one considered “walking dead” because the person who posted it no longer maintains or updates it? Even though the information is “alive” in that it is still accessible, it is “dead” in that it could well be several years old!
What is the purpose of this page? Why is this information being posted–as information, as a public service, as a news source, as a research tool for academics, as a personal ax to grind, or as a way to gain attention?
How well organised is the page?
Is the page easy to navigate? Is it complete? When was the page last updated? Is the information on it current? How credible are the links it provides?
Is the information on the page primary or secondary?
That is, is it a report of facts, such as a medical researcher’s article counting cases of “mad cow” disease in England in 1997, thus making it primary information, or is it an Internet newsgroup discussion about “mad cow” disease, thus making it secondary information? The papers and reports you write for your college classes need to be based on primary information whenever possible. The further away from the primary sources your own sources are, the less reliable the information is.
Can you verify the information on the Web page some other way?
For example, can you check the page’s bibliography (if there is one) against your library’s holdings or check the information against a source in the library?
If you are worried that the information may lack credibility, try starting with a source you know is reputable. For example, if you have to do a project on the latest in cancer research, you can begin your search at major cancer research institutes, such as Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Finally, remember that even though a page might not meet your standards as a citable source, it may help you generate good ideas or point to other usable sources. Also, be sure not to stop your search at the first page you find – shop around and do some comparing so that you can have points of reference.
Beware of hearsay and rumours! Ultimately, the problem with reliability of information on the Web is like the whispering game children play. Someone whispers a message to the first child, who whispers it to the second, and so on. By the time it gets to the last child, the message is hopelessly distorted. Web pages can work the same way when people get their information from other people’s Web pages: The first person who posts information may make a few small errors; the second unintentionally repeats them and makes one or two more; the third makes a few more; and so on. For information seekers it can be impossible to tell where in the chain the information is coming from, but that makes a difference in the information’s reliability. So it never hurts to check against a library reference. – websites.