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Evaluating Internet Sources

A Library Resource Guide

Because of the hodge-podge of information on the Internet, it is very important you develop evaluation skills to assist you in identifying quality Web pages.  There are six (6) criteria that should be applied when evaluating any Web site: authority, accuracy, objectivity, currency, coverage, and appearance.  For each criteria, there are several questions to be asked.   The more questions you can answer "yes", the more likely the Web site is one of quality. 

 

The framework of this document (criteria and questions) was developed by Jan Alexander and Marsha Tate and is available on their site Evaluate Web Pages.

Below is a chart listing key questions for each of the six criteria.  By clicking on a particular criteria, you will be given more explanation.

Authority

Is it clear who is responsible for the contents of the page?  

Is there a way of verifying the legitimacy of the organization, group, company or individual? 

Is there any indication of the author's qualifications for writing on a particular topic?

Is the information from sources known to be reliable? 

Accuracy

Are the sources for factual information clearly listed so they can be verified in another source?

Is the information free of grammatical, spelling, and other typographical errors?
Objectivity

Does the content appear to contain any evidence of bias?

Is there a link to a page describing the goals or purpose of the sponsoring organization or company?

If there is any advertising on the page, is it clearly differentiated from the informational content? 

Currency

Are there dates on the page to indicate when the page was written, when the page was first placed on the Web, or when the page was last revised?

Coverage

Are these topics successfully addressed, with clearly presented arguments and adequate support to substantiate them?

Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information?

Is the target audience identified and appropriate for your needs? 
Appearance

Does the site look well organized?

Do the links work?

Does the site appear well maintained?

1.  Authority

a)  Is it clear who is responsible for the contents of the page?

WHY IMPORTANT? - It is critical to relate the ideas you find at a site to a particular author, organization, or business.  In this way, there is a degree of accountability for any of the ideas expressed.  Once the individual or organization responsible for the content is known, you can then begin to look at other clues to help you ascertain credibility, such as credentials and reputation. Be especially wary of sites in which the author or sponsoring organization is not clearly stated.

Note, the sponsor of a site is often responsible for the content.  You can quickly determine a site's sponsor by looking for references at the top and/or bottom of the page.  In addition, the first part of the address of a site, called the domain, contains information that allows you to get a general idea of the sponsor.  For example, having the domain name .edu (e.g. http://www.nmu.edu) means the site is hosted by an educational institution, .com means a commercial enterprise, .gov means a government agency, and .org means an organization, such as the National Rifle Association.  It is important to note that some sponsors are not directly responsible for the content on their site, such as personal pages hosted by universities or commercial Internet Service Providers (e.g. AOL, UP.net, etc.).  You can identify these pages because they are often represented by a tilde (~) in their address (e.g. http:www.nmu.edu/~kmcdonou/home.html).    

If you want to find out specifically who is hosting a site, you can remove part of the address from your current page and go back to the root address.  For example, let's say you are looking at a site on the Renaissance, located at http://www.learner.org/exhibits/renaissance/.  If there is no indication who is sponsoring this site you can go back to http://www.learner.org/.  Here you discover the Renaissance site is a project sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with funding from the Annenberg School of Communications.

b)  Is there a way of verifying the legitimacy of the organization, group, company or individual?  That is, is there a phone number or postal address to contact for more information?  (Simply an e-mail address is not enough).

WHY IMPORTANT? - Anyone with an Internet Service Provider (AOL, UP.net, NMU, etc.) can put up a Web page.  As a result, you need to have some idea whether the group claiming responsibility for the information on the Web site is legitimate. A phone number or postal address allows you to contact the group or company and ask for more information. Be wary of sites that do not provide contact information.  Because it is difficult to verify the legitimacy of an individual, personal home pages may be useful sources for personal opinion, but must be used with caution when citing them as source for factual information.   

c) Is there any indication of the author's qualifications (either an individual or an organization) for writing on a particular topic?

WHY IMPORTANT? - If you find an article describing the ecology of black bears, you need to know if the author is qualified to speak intelligently on this topic.  Clues include an author's educational background (e.g. PhD in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Michigan), current position (Wildlife Biologist for the Department of Natural Resources), or reputation (Nobel Laureate in Biology, member of the National Academy of Sciences, etc.).  If the content is provided by an organization, you might want to consider if the organization known and respected.  

d)  Is the information from sources known to be reliable?

WHY IMPORTANT? - Statements from established and reputable organizations almost always have been seen and approved by several people. As a result, this check and balance system helps prevent the release of unsound information. Government sites (.gov) are very good examples of organizations where information is disseminated through this type of system.  For other organizations, it can be difficult sometimes to determine if they are established and reputable. Clues to look for include the date an organization was founded, the number of members, their mission, the types of publications they produce, whether they have annual conferences, etc. Generally, established organizations have been around for a while and have a good membership base. 

You might want to check any information provided on the Web site against that found in the Encyclopedia of Associations, located in Olson Library (Ready Reference HS 17 .G334), in order to receive a more objective view.  Another way of determining the reputation of an organization is to examine how it is referred to in newspaper or periodical articles. You can use the library's subscription databases to search for articles in newspapers and periodicals on a particular organization. 

Other sources known for quality include online journals and magazines. Most journals use a peer review process, whereby several individuals evaluate and critique an article, allowing the author to make revisions before an editor makes a final decision on whether it is published.  Popular magazines, although not having as stringent of a review process, still have editors who evaluate articles before they are published.  As a result of this editorial process, these publications will tend to be more reliable or trustworthy than information found on a personal Web site.

In regards to the quality of an information source, it is important to note the difference between an unofficial comment made by an individual at an organization and an official statement by the same organization.  When Bill Smith, employee of the National Weather Service, says on National Public Radio "I believe this will be a bad year for hurricanes," this information is based on his opinion and may be no more reliable than your own.  This is significantly different than a statement on the National Weather Service's Web site, "This is going to be a bad year for hurricanes." The employee is speaking for himself; whereas a statement in the name of NWS represents the official position of NWS.  An official position will have been reviewed or edited before being released.  

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2.  Accuracy

a)  Are the sources for factual information clearly listed so they can be verified in another source?

WHY IMPORTANT? - A source of information is known to be scholarly when it provides references to the information presented.  In this way, the reader can confirm whether the information is accurate or the author's conclusions reasonable. A page without references still may be useful as an example of the ideas of an individual, organization, or business, but not as source of factual information. 

b)  Is the information free of grammatical, spelling, and other typographical errors?

WHY IMPORTANT? - Such errors not only indicate a lack of attention and effort, but also can actually produce inaccuracies in information. Whether the errors come from carelessness or ignorance, they both put the information or writer in an unfavorable light. 

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  3.  Objectivity

a) Does the content appear to contain any evidence of bias?

WHY IMPORTANT? - If the content contains bias, only one point of view is being presented. This may not be bad depending on your needs.  For example, in writing a position paper on gun control, you may want to compare the extreme pro-gun position of the National Rifle Association, with that of the anti-gun organization Cease Fire or a more balanced report published by an independent think tank site (such as the Brookings Institute).  Regardless, you will want to know if the information is biased or not in order to make appropriate decisions on how to use it. 

One way of determining this is by relying on your own experience and knowledge to determine if the information appears believable or reasonable.  In your experience, does the information make sense?  If an individual claims that one of every 3 Americans have an alcohol problem, is it true that a third of all your friends and family members have a drinking problem?  Another way of detecting bias is assessing how true the information appears relative to other reliable sources of information.  You should make sure you corroborate any position you find with other positions published in other sources, such as periodicals or books.  In this way you can discover where a position appears on the continuum.  

NOTE:  the domain name (as mentioned under Authority) can help you determine the possible slant or potential bias of the information contained in a site.  For example, the benefits of a new drug might be more objective coming from a government web site (.gov), such as the Food and Drug Administration, rather than those offered by its manufacturer, Bristal-Myers Squibb (.com).

Directly related to bias is the concept of fairness.  Good information sources will use a calm, reasoned tone to present information in a balanced manner.  Pay attention to the tone and be cautious of sites that contain highly emotional writing.  Writing that is overly critical, attacking, or spiteful often indicates an irrational and unfair presentation rather than a reasoned argument.

b)   Is there a link to a page describing the goals or purpose of the sponsoring organization or company?

WHY IMPORTANT? - The goals or purpose of a group, organization, or company can help you assess for possible biasness. For example, let's say you found an article in the online newspaper-The Truth at Last-stating how black slaves enjoyed the idea of slavery.  There is nothing in the title of the newspaper that would necessarily lead you to believe this is a biased perspective.  However, upon looking at the page describing the goals of this newspaper, you discover it is published by a group of individuals that advocate the segregation of the white and black races. Thus, the article you read could be suspect based on the extreme position of the sponsoring group.

c)   If there is any advertising on the page, is it clearly differentiated from the informational content?

WHY IMPORTANT? - The intent of advertising is to sell a product or idea.  Sometimes advertising is woven into an article, where it is hard to notice that the information presented is actually part of an advertisement.  An example in the print world would be a multi-page, special advertising insert in Newsweek, paid for by a leading group of pharmaceutical companies that discusses new developments in drug treatments for arthritis.  Although the article is very informative, it's intent is to promote the products of particular companies.  In the Web environment, it is especially important to critically examine information presented on commercial sites (.com).  

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4.   Currency  

      Are there dates on the page to indicate when the page was written, when the page was first placed on the Web,or when the page was last revised?  

WHY IMPORTANT? - Some information is very time sensitive.  For example, a page talking about the top rate Web search engines in 1997 is going to be horribly out of date in 2000.  There have been incredible changes in search engine technology and new developments appear almost monthly. However, a page discussing the Civil War is likely still relevant today even if the page was created in 1996 and has not been updated.  Regardless, a site should always provide some indication of when the information was created or the site was last updated.  

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5. Coverage

a)  Are these topics successfully addressed, with clearly presented arguments and adequate support to substantiate them?

b)  Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information? Does it extensively or marginally cover your topic?

c)  Is the target audience identified and appropriate for your needs?  

WHY IMPORTANT? - Coverage is one of the most important factors to consider before using the information in a Web page. If the information appears one sided, it could be evidence of bias (see objectivity). You should explore enough sources to obtain a variety of viewpoints and thereby determine where a particular view fits on the continuum. 

Also, you will want to see if a page is presenting a new perspective on the topic, or just summarizing other sources. If it summarizes other sources, you will likely want to get hold of the originals.  If it is difficult to assess the topics covered in a page or the arguments are not presented very clearly, you might reconsider before referencing this site. 

Finally, be aware of the target audience to whom a page is directed. The target audience has a direct bearing on the coverage of a site. For example, if you find a page dealing with evolution on a K-12 educational site, it is likely the material may be too simplified for a college biology paper.

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6. Appearance

a)  Does the site look well organized?

b)  Do the links work?

c)  Does the site appear that it is well maintained?

d)  Do graphics and multimedia obscure content?

WHY IMPORTANT - In the print world, one way of assessing quality in a book is through it's physical layout and appearance: the sturdiness of the binding and cover material, the presence of a well organized table of contents and comprehensive index, clear type face, appropriate illustrations, etc.  This attention to detail reflects an inherent quality. Likewise, in the Web environment a sign of quality in a site is external links that work properly, an organizational structure that allows one to quickly determine content and access it equally fast, and graphics or multimedia that complement the information presented.

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Additional resource:
Barker, Joe. "Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask." 22 March 2005. Includes a Web Page Evaluation Checklist.



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