Searching the Web
Using Web Sources for Research
There are thousands of hoax Web sites out there. However, even “real” Web sites can be unreliable for the purposes of academic research, which requires that sources meet a higher level of scholarly authority than is required for casual information seeking.
If you want to use the Web for research, use the following questions and hints to evaluate sites.
Authority: look for credentials/”proof” of authority on a given topic
- Who is the author or producer of the Web site? What establishes his/her/their authority with regard to what is presented on the site?
- Is the author/producer/organization who created the page visible on the site?
- Is there an “About this site” page that gives this information?
- Run a Web search on the site’s creator to establish his/her/their authority
Reliability: look for academic and non-profit sites
- Is the site affiliated with a known academic, governmental, or commercial organization/institution?
- Does the site offer “neutral” material in a biased way? If the site is biased, does it state its bias up front (in other words, the Greenpeace site is authoritative as a site offering the perspective of a liberal environmental group—but Greenpeace is 100% up front about their political agenda; they don’t mask their position in neutrality)
- Hint: non-profit sites are often more neutral than commercial sites, which are trying to sell you something. Often, non-profit sites have .edu, .gov, or .org domains
Timeliness: depending on the subject-matter, being up-to-date might be essential
- Is the site current? Does currency matter with regard to the topic you’re investigating? (If you’re researching 18th-century paintings, then a site put up in 1992 should still hold relevant information. If, however, you’re researching developments in cancer research, you will want to find a site with very current information.)
- Are the links on the site still valid?
Content & Appearance: Look for sources, good writing, etc.
- Does the site clearly state its purpose and coverage?
- How does the site establish the validity of its information? Does it list sources?
- Who is the intended audience of the site?
- Is the site professional in appearance? Is it written well?
If you do use a Web site as a resource:
- Print out relevant pages because Web sites can change quickly
- Make sure you’ve noted the exact URL—you’ll need that in your bibliography
- Note the date you accessed the site—you’ll also need that in your bibliography
- If you have any doubts about the authority of a site, check with your professor before using the site for your research