Using Internet Sources

A Writer's Manual

This manual was written cooperatively between the UMC Writing Center, the UMC library and the UMC Department of Communication. It is designed as a reference to which students may turn for help with all parts of the writing process, and which faculty may use to help their students. In addition to offering practical tips to writing for students, the manual also provides helpful information on research and research methods, plagiarism, citing in multiple styles, and many valuable links. All links offered herein are used with permission of the sponsoring institution.

Evaluating Internet Sources

What does an instructor mean when (s)he says “Make sure everything is properly cited” or “Must include at least three peer-reviewed journals”? This first section will define some common terms related to research, allowing you to understand your instructor’s requirements and restrictions on certain types of Internet-based sources.

Using the Internet for Research

In the past, almost all information came in print form. Paper journals were the most frequently used research tools. Although paper journals still exist, online information is most often the first choice of modern students and researchers; many of the top academic journals are now available online.
Online (or Internet) research is a general term which refers to any electronically-retrieved data. As a general rule, online sources can be divided into three tiers, according to their reliability:

Top-tier sources are those with the most reliable information. Sources in this category include professional, scholarly, and academic peer-reviewed journals or sites. All these terms are just a fancy way of saying that each article contained in the journal or site has been thoroughly reviewed by a panel of experts in that field of study, and that the writer’s research and writing procedures adhere to those established in that discipline. Examples of peer-reviewed journals include the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the American Journal of Psychology, and the Journal of Wildlife Management. Most major fields have at least one peer-reviewed journal. Most have many. Text books are also peer-reviewed.

So, does publication in a peer-reviewed journal guarantee that the information is accurate? Well, yes and no. The information published in a peer-reviewed journal is accurate when compared to the best information available at the time of publication, but this may change with further research. You therefore want to look closely at the dates on articles in peer-reviewed journals. It is perfectly possible that what was considered “true” in your field in the 1980s is no longer “true” today. Normally, though, citing multiple peer-reviewed journals will give your paper maximum credibility.

Mid-tier sources are those in which credibility is likely to be high, but which may or may not be formally peer-reviewed. This means that you as a writer as responsible for judging the reliability of the information contained in these sources. Some examples of mid-tier sources include:

  • Libraries. You will find all kinds of information in libraries and at library websites – from Reader’s Digest to The Gulag Archipelago. But the kind of information we are talking about here is the information actually published by libraries. Librarians tend to be very meticulous people, so their information tends to be very accurate. For example, the UMC Library has its own quick guide to the American Psychological Association (APA) Style of writing on its website, as well as links to other sites. All these sites have been examined by professional librarians and selected for their accuracy and reliability.
  • Trade publications are documents produced by an industry about that industry. Examples include Rubber World (about the rubber industry) and Sugar Journal (about the sugar industry). It is important for you to judge whether a trade publication is trying its best to publish accurate information – whether positive or negative – about the industry or if it is an advocacy publication, trying to present the industry in the most positive light.
  • Government documents are sources that detail the official positions of federal, state, or local governments. Government sites and documents earn a certain amount of credibility because they are official, but be cautious: the government (like any other organization) may seek to present itself or its information in a flattering light.
  • Newspapers can be a good source of information, if you keep in mind their limitations and reputations. Unlike peer-reviewed journals, which are designed for academics, newspapers are written to appeal to readers. Some, like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor have high standards of objectivity. Others are little more than scandal sheets. Keep in mind that newspapers are written and updated on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis, leaving them less time to research and verify facts.
  • News magazines are weekly or monthly magazines dedicated to reporting on news and world events. Newsweek, U.S. News and World Reports, and Time are all examples. Like newspapers, the quality of news magazines can vary. With certain exceptions, most are written to appeal to a broad audience. Some are deliberately political.
  • Popular magazines are designed to present information in an eye-catching format. People, US Weekly, and Reader’s Digest are examples. The reliability of information contained in popular magazines or on their sites should always be verified through other sources.
  • Company/agency websites are produced by virtually all businesses, foundations, and universities. As a rule, such sites contain mostly positive information about the company or organization. 
  • Wikis are online encyclopedias that offer general information on a wide variety of subjects that anyone can edit at any time. Wikis can be a good place to begin your research, since they are made up of information from many other sources. However, since anyone can make changes to them, they should not be used as a citation source in a research paper.

Bottom-tier sources are those where information is likely to be inaccurate, inadequately researched, or strongly biased. Some examples of bottom-tier sources include:

  • Homemade websites are websites made by individuals for their own reasons. Remember that anyone can make a website. The quality of these sites varies wildly; some writers take great care to add only accurate information, while others purposefully report exaggerations and misinformation as fact. Information from these sites should be treated as unreliable unless it is verified by a variety of higher-level sources.
  • Blogs are similar to homemade websites in that they are vehicles for a single person’s worldview and opinions. While blogs can sometimes provide insightful (if often personal and informal) analysis and opinions, they should, like other informal sources, be treated with caution and used in academic papers only when absolutely necessary.
  • Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are not really “sites” at all in the sense of research. Social media posts tend to be brief, personal, and unverifiable. Most companies have corporate Facebook and Twitter accounts, but because these are primarily used for promotional purposes, they likely contain highly biased information. Company websites are usually a better source for corporate information.

By Rand Rasmussen, Ph.D.
Last edited October 2016 by Allison Haas, MA.