It is important to look critically at the information you find and the sources from which you find this information.
Accuracy means the extent to which the information is reliable and free from errors.
For traditional print resources, you can assume a certain degree of accuracy in the information if it:
- Went through the peer-review process
- Was reviewed by editors and fact-checkers
- Has a listing of sources
- Adheres to a style manual
Evaluating the accuracy of information found on websites is slightly different than evaluating the accuracy of print resources because websites often have a condensed publication process and might not undergo any sort of outside editing or reviewing.
Consider the following when evaluating the accuracy of information found on a website:
- What type(s) of information does the site contain?
- Are the sources of information identified?
- Is the information consistent with, or contradictory to, information on the subject found in traditional edited and reviewed sources?
Authority is the extent to which the content of material is recognized as provided by a person or organization having definitive knowledge of a given subject area.
To determine the authority of a source, examine the following:
- Author's qualifications: background, experience, credentials
- Publisher's reputation: who uses products, expertise of contributing authors and editorial boards
On websites, it can be problematic identifying the author of the site and his or her qualifications. It can also be difficult to find who is ultimately responsible for publishing the website. Ask yourself the following questions:
Is the creator of the site...
- advertising a product or otherwise biased?
Not only will you want to look at who created the site, but you will also want to look at who sponsors the site.
Is the site sponsored by a(n)...
- educational institution?
- government agency?
Sometimes looking at the domain of a website's URL will help you determine what type of organization is sponsoring the site. Commonly used domains include:
- .com: indicates that it is a commercial site
If you are looking at a commercial site, be aware that the sponsor of the site may be trying to sell you something, and therefore, may present only the most favorable information available on a given topic.
- .edu: indicates that it is an educational site
If you are looking at a site sponsored by an educational organization such as a university or college, be aware that some institutions provide space on their sites for students and personnel to post information or create websites. Not all information provided necessarily has the endorsement of the university hosting the site.
- .org: indicates that it is a site sponsored by a non-profit organization
Organizations often have a purpose driving them. This purpose likely manifests itself on the organization's website. Be cautious that information presented on organizational websites is not too biased and look for other sites that might provide contrasting opinions so that all sides of an issue are examined.
- .mil: indicates a site hosted by some facet of the military
- .net: indicates an Internet-related service
- .gov: indicates a site hosted by some unit of government in the United States
Coverage and intended audience refer to the range of topics presented in a source and the depth of the discussion on these topics.
For print resources, use the following to determine the coverage and intended audience:
- Preface or introduction
- Table of contents
- Scanning headings throughout the text
Currency is the extent to which the material can be identified as up-to-date.
In traditional print resources, indicators as to the currency of the information provided include:
- Publication and copyright dates
- Date of compilation for statistical information
Websites present unique challenges for determining currency because there are no conventions in place for including this type of information. Dates may often be omitted or may refer to the creation of the site or date of last revision. To get a complete idea of how current information on a website is, ask yourself:
When was the site...
- altered or corrected?
Objectivity means that the information is presented without distortion by the personal feelings or biases of the author.
To evaluate the objectivity of an information source, ask yourself the following question:
- What was the intent or motivation of the information source's creator?
It can be difficult to evaluate the objectivity of a website because the sources or intent of information are often omitted from the site. However, looking critically at why the site was produced can help you identify if any biases are present.
Is the creator trying to...
- persuade you to see his or her way on the issue at hand?
- present facts so you can make your own decisions based on the information provided?
Although you should use the same criteria to evaluate websites that you use to evaluate print resources, there are other criteria to consider when looking at websites that are not applicable in the print environment.
When evaluating websites, consider the following:
- Is the website well-organized and easily navigable?
- Are links on the site functional?
- Does it reflect the same standards expected of an edited publication such as correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling?
- What is the permanence of the information? Is the URL likely to change?
- Do software or hardware requirements limit access to the information?
- Is there so much advertising or sponsorship on the page that the information gets lost among it?