A Criteria for Evaluating Sources of Information
Evaluating Internet Research Sources
"The central work of life is interpretation." --Proverb
The Diversity of Information Information is a Commodity Available in Many Flavors
Think about the magazine section in your local grocery store. If you reach out with your eyes closed and grab the first magazine you touch, you are about as likely to get a supermarket tabloid as you are a respected journal (actually more likely, since many respected journals don't fare well in grocery stores). Now imagine that your grocer is so accommodating that he lets anyone in town print up a magazine and put it in the magazine section. Now if you reach out blindly, you might get the Elvis Lives with Aliens Gazette just as easily as Atlantic Monthly or Time.
Welcome to the Internet. As I hope my analogy makes clear, there is an extremely wide variety of material on the Internet, ranging in its accuracy, reliability, and value. Unlike most traditional information media (books, magazines, organizational documents), no one has to approve the content before it is made public. It's your job as a searcher, then, to evaluate what you locate, in order to determine whether it suits your needs.
Information Exists on a Continuum of Reliability and Quality
Information is everywhere on the Internet, existing in large quantities and continuously being created and revised. This information exists in a large variety of kinds (facts, opinions, stories, interpretations, statistics)and is created for many purposes (to inform, to persuade, to sell, to present a viewpoint, and to create or change an attitude or belief). For each of these various kinds and purposes, information exists on many levels of quality or reliability. It ranges from very good to very bad and includes every shade in between.
Getting Started: Screening Information
The first stage of evaluating your sources takes place before you do any searching. Take a minute to ask yourself what exactly you are looking for. Do you want facts, opinions (authoritative or just anyone's), reasoned arguments, statistics, narratives, eyewitness reports, descriptions? Is the purpose of your research to get new ideas, to find either factual or reasoned support for a position, to survey opinion, or something else? Once you decide on this, you will be able to screen sources much more quickly by testing them against your research goal. If, for example, you are writing a research paper, and if you are looking for both facts and well-argued opinions to support or challenge a position, you will know which sources can be quickly passed by and which deserve a second look, simply by asking whether each source appears to offer facts and well-argued opinions, or just unsupported claims.
Select Sources Likely to be Reliable
Becoming proficient at selecting sources will require experience, of course, but even a beginning researcher can take a few minutes to ask, "What source or what kind of source would be the most credible for providing information in this particular case?" Which sources are likely to be fair, objective, lacking hidden motives, showing quality control? It is important to keep these considerations in mind, so that you will not simply take the opinion of the first source or two you can locate. By thinking about these issues while searching, you will be able to identify suspicious or questionable sources more readily. With so many sources to choose from in a typical search, there is no reason to settle for unreliable material.
Source Selection Tip: Try to select sources that offer as much of the following information as possible:
Author's Title or Position
Author's Organizational Affiliation
Date of Page Creation or Version
Author's Contact Information
Some of the Indicators of Information Quality