Anyone, in theory, can publish on the Web; therefore, it is imperative for users of the Web to develop a critical eye to evaluate the credibility of Internet information. Searching for sources on the WWW involves using a search engine, a directory, or some combination of these two. Because there is so much information on the Web, good and bad, finding what you want is not an exact science and can be time consuming. According to Nicholas C. Burbules, “….the Web is not an ordinary reference system; it poses some unique and, in many respects, unprecedented conditions that complicate the task of sorting out dependable from undependable information–and even complicates the notion that we have a clear sense of that distinction. How to differentiate credible from fraudulent information is not a new problem, but unraveling these in the context of a vast rapidly changing networked system is” (Paradoxes of the Web: The Ethical Dimensions of Credibility, Library Trends, Wntr 2001 v49 i3 p441, Introduction).
Developing a keen sense of the credibility of sources, based on such clues as connection of author to the subject, audience, source of publication, and documentation of supporting evidence, can also help you evaluate print and other types of sources. Though many search engines rank material according to their idea of what is relevant, that doesn’t mean the material is relevant to want you want or is reliable. These guidelines are to help you become familiar with various types of Web resources and the reliability of the information.
1. With what organization or institution is the author associated? Is there a link to the sponsoring organization, a contact number and/or address or e-mail contact? A link to an association does not necessarily mean that the organization approved the content.
2. Is there any evidence that the author of the Web information has some authority in the field about which she or he is providing information? What are the author’s qualifications, credentials and connections to the subject?
3. Is the Web information current? If there are a number of out-of-date links that do not work or old news, what does this say about the credibility of the information?
4. Are there clues that the author/s are biased? For example, is he/she selling or promoting a product? Is the author taking a personal stand on a social/political issue or is the author being objective ? Bias is not necessarily “bad,” but the connections should be clear.
5. Does the author have publications in peer reviewed (scholarly and professional) publications, on the Web or in hard copy? (If an author does not have peer reviewed articles published, this does not mean that she or he does not have credible information, only that there has been no professional “test” of the author’s authority on that subject.)
6. On what kind of Web site does the information appear? The site can give you clues about the credibility of the source.
7. Does the information have a complete list of works cited, which reference credible, authoritative sources? If the information is not backed up with sources, what is the author’s relationship to the subject to be able to give an “expert” opinion?
8. Can the subject you are researching be fully covered with WWW sources or should print sources provide balance? Much scholarly research is still only available in traditional print form. It is safe to assume that if you have limited background in a topic and have a limited amount of time to do your research, you may not be able to get the most representative material on the subject. So be wary of making unsupportable conclusions based on a narrow range of sources.