The guide below was prepared to help inform readers about using the Internet as a source for discussions. It was put together several years ago by Rachel Brekhus, Humanities Reference Librarian at Ellis Library, University of Missouri-Columbia.
When you find a website with interesting information, don’t trust it automatically. There is no guarantee that anyone is checking websites for accuracy. Even sites with basically accurate facts might be selective about WHICH facts they mention, which can also produce distorted information. You might use these sites, but you may need others to balance them. Even sites whose information was good when it was first put up can get out of date.
When you want to use a website, look for an author. This can be a person or an organization such as a university, a “think tank,” a church, or a person affiliated with an organization. Questions to ask about all websites:
- Who puts up the information? (see further questions below)
- What’s the motive for putting up the information (see further questions below)
- How often is the site updated? Good websites should indicate this.
Questions to ask about personal authors:
- Are they experts in the subject they’re writing about?
- Ph.D. or Master’s degree in something is a good start, but make sure the credential is for the basic subject they’re talking about. “Fellow” of an institute is not, in itself, a qualification. Anyone can be hired as a “fellow.”
- If the person is a reporter or other non-expert, do they show some awareness of what experts think?
- Will they suffer consequences if they tell lies or make factual errors? Journalists in major newspapers usually will. Bloggers may or may not.
- Do they have a commercial motive to say or not say certain things?
- is the website owned by a company that sells the product, or a competing product? It probably won’t put up information that will drive its customers away from its products.
The last three questions have to do with organizations authors belong to – they are why you should find out more about the organizations.
Questions to ask about organizations:
Is accurate, reliable information the main selling point or (newspapers, universities, some institutes)?
Do they exist in order to provide information with a particular viewpoint or change people’s minds on a particular issue? (think tanks, some institutes, religious sites)? Look for this information on the organization’s home page and look for what others say about them.
There are also questions that have to do with how the website works. How does the information get there? If there’s a single author or organization who puts up all the information, you can ask the above questions. It’s more complex with blogs, online groups (like Yahoo or Myspace groups) and wikis (like Wikipedia). Some blogs and groups, and all wikis, allow all members to post to the site, or at least edit existing content. Wikis can be especially tricky, because information that might look “definite” or “permanent” might be totally changed if you look at it a few days, or even a few minutes later.
Questions to ask about group-authored sites:
- Is membership/ability to post restricted to certain people? Which people? Does this make you trust the posted content more or less?
- Is there any concern with maintaining “quality control?” Is there an editor, or a “reputation” system, and how does that work?
- In wikis, where do you go to look at earlier versions of the page and see why it was changed?