The Internet is an amazing resource, with a click of the mouse or a push of a button, tremendous amounts of information materializes right in front of you on the screen. The Internet and the World Wide Web have truly revolutionized the way students approach academic research, but there are both positive and negative effects of the ease and availability of information that is listed online. With all the benefits the Internet offers in terms of accessibility to knowledge, there is a downside; anyone can put information on a webpage and there is no guarantee for accuracy.
Professors will require you to document sources for your research papers and you’ll have to be careful about the references you find through Internet search engines. By plugging in one or more keywords into the search engine, a surplus of web pages is brought to your screen. As you click on the links, you find that some of the sites that at first glance look completely appropriate for research and some totally unsuitable. Sometimes, however, it’s really hard to tell whether or not a website is an appropriate choice to use.
With the millions of web pages scattered across the web, how do you determine which sites are reliable sources of information? In the electronic age we live in, there are many research options, the key is finding which references are reliable and which are not.
Tips to evaluate online resources for academic research
• Who is the author(s)? Always look for listed authors and if you can verify where the information came from. Random text on a website that does not have a verifiable author listed with it (usually with contact information) is probably not a good site to use for academic research. Is this person qualified to publish on your research topic? Most academically suited reference pages are an author who is detailed with information about themselves and also cites other authors within their own work.
• Determine who the publisher is. Take a look at the URL of the webpage, does it come from a .com, .org, .edu or a .gov? Is the author the same person as the webmaster? It’s important to know what kind of domain you are looking at to help you conclude if your source is a reliable one. Choosing a site that promotes propaganda or a commercial product is not a site that will hold validity for your paper.
• Look to see if the website is current or outdated. Links that are “broken” or haven’t been updated since 1997 may not be the most reliable sources, depending on your topic, statistics change, theories modernize and variations on social issues emerge. It’s best to find something a bit more current that will provide valid and up to date facts to back up your argument.
• Learn to differentiate between commercial websites and informational ones. For instance, you are writing a paper on computer security and pull up a vendor’s website. In a case like this, you have to be very careful, because there is a probability you are reading a lengthy article that essentially advertises a product and will be biased in nature, but presenting as unadulterated fact. On the other hand, if you pull up an article on computer security written by a computer science professor listed on an .edu or .gov site, this would be a better selection for your reference page to present with your topic as a citation.
• Become skilled at how to make a distinction between official sites and opinion ones. Everyone has an opinion. Some publish opinions without any clear objectivity and want to express their right to a freedom of speech. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, except that it’s not a good reference to use in academic research.
Ways to find reliable resources on the webe
• Research database libraries. Many online libraries are accessible that offer mass amounts of information to use for research projects. This information would be more limiting if research was solely reliant upon traditional research methods. Most colleges offer a collection of databases designated for student use. You’ll typically need a user name and password, check with your college library on how to access this wealth of information.
• Look for links listed on your school’s webpage. Most colleges have a detailed resource section on their university homepages that lead to other academic resources.
• Academic sites. Visit other college’s websites; while you probably can’t access their online library databases, there are often good research tips to be accessed.
• Look for government or educational sites that are informational in nature. All websites are biased to an extent, but in selecting sites whose primary purpose is to inform is usually a safe bet.
Determining which sites are suitable for citations and references is not always easy, but with practice you’ll get comfortable in being able to discriminate between websites and be able to select the right ones to use for your coursework.
Cornell University Library , retrieved December 2, 2007