How to evaluate information on WWW

The advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) has drastically altered the way that researchers locate information. Perhaps the biggest change is that these tools have profoundly democratized the distribution of information. It is now very easy for anyone to publish information on the WWW. This ease of publication can be viewed as either good or bad. On one hand, it allows more people to express their points of view; while on the other hand, there are no editorial boards or peer reviews that evaluate the quality or factual content of the information before it is published. While the World Wide Web can be a very good place to do research on many topics, putting documents or web pages on the web is easy, cheap or free, unregulated, and unmonitored. So it is buyer beware.

Therein lies the rationale for evaluating carefully whatever you find on the Web. The burden is on you, the reader, to establish the credibility of what you find. Documents can easily be copied and falsified or copied with omissions and errors (intentional or accidental). Most pages found in general search engines on the web are self-published or published by businesses with motives to get you to buy something or believe a point of view. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important that the reader understands this. Even within university sites, there can be many pages that the institution does not try to oversee or edit.  If you want to use the WWW for serious research, you need to cultivate a healthy skepticism, question everything you find, use critical thinking skills.

Without regard to your point of view, one thing is very clear.  It is more important than ever for researchers to critically evaluate information that they locate on the World Wide Web. As an example of how easy it is to locate false, misleading, or just inaccurate information, view the following Minnesota Coconuts page.

There are many similarities in evaluating print and WWW information. Following are some of the things that should be considered when evaluating the quality of the information being used. Ask these questions first: Does it all add up?  Does this make sense?

  • Authority - Who is the creator and author? What type of credentials do they possess? What are the educational backgrounds of the authors?  What type of domain does the URL come from (education, commercial, personal, government etc.?
  • Fairness - Is the material biased (intentional or otherwise)? Are there any institutional affiliations?
  • Quality/Reliability - Is the information accurate?  Do the authors provide evidence (documented)?  Is there any type of editorial review process?
  • Currency - How up to date is the information?  Is it time sensitive information?
  • Scope - What information is included and what is not included? How complete is the information?
  • Purpose – What is the intent of the page?