Research tips: How to determine credible information on the Web

There is a wealth of information available on the Web. Through the click of the mouse or 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.

While the amount of content available online is not an issue, what is an issue is the quality of the content. With all the benefits the Internet offers in terms of accessibility to knowledge, there is a downside; pretty much anyone can put information on a Web page and there is no guarantee for accuracy. Here are a few tips to help understand how to evaluate Web pages when doing research:

Is there an author listed?

It is always important, especially when doing academic research, to look at the author. Is there an author listed? If not, this is typically not a good academic source to use. Random text on a website with no author listed is not credible proof to offer information. If there is a name, look through the information and see if any expertise, titles or references to other academic work is included on the Web page. Always check to see if the person is qualified to publish the information (either formally or informally). Most credible Web pages for research list an author, their bio and/or credentials and give additional information.

Nature of the website

When evaluating Web pages for research it is of value to always immediately look at the URL of the page. Is it a .edu, .gov, .com, .mil, .net or .org? It is important to know what kind of domain the site is listed with because this may give some insight as to whether the source is reliable or not. Most .edu, .gov and .mil sites are official sites and are generally good resources of information. With .com, .org, and .net, this can be questionable. While one does not have to immediately rule out a page located in one of the latter domains, it does need to be looked at a bit more carefully.

For instance you don’t want to select a commercial site that reads like an ad (no matter how great it sounds, it is biased!) nor do you want one which promotes propaganda of some sort.  For credible research it is best to choose neutral pieces, or if not neutral, cite credible references to back up the information given. These kinds of sources give your research more credibility. Above all, learn how to separate and distinguish commercial websites from information ones, this will prove the most value for a research project.

Updates on Web page

It is also of value to see if the website is current or outdated. Most Web pages have a “last updated” notation somewhere on the page, and if the page has not been updated in 10 years, this is not a good site to use in most instances, albeit this may depend on the topic. The reason it is not a good idea to use an outdated site is that statistics change, theories evolve and modernize and technology most definitely progresses. Finding Web pages that have fresh content with the most up to date trends, statistics and data are often more valuable.

Differentiate opinion from fact

Since anyone can put up a Web page, it is of utmost importance to learn how to segregate opinion from fact. People, by nature, love to offer their opinions and they may or may not have a clear objective approach in doing so. There is nothing wrong with this, but it could impact the quality of your research which will need to depend on proven factual details, and not necessarily theories that do not have any other basis to support them. Most professors will discard this type of reference unless there are quality sources linked to it.

Doing research on the Web is a convenient option to have, however it does not come without some problems. The key to successful research is to learn how to differentiate the credible pages from the non-credible ones and then a list of quality references can be created to derive information from and complete the research project.