Assessing the Credibility of an Online Source
Assessing credibility is important, regardless of the source you are using. You should want to set a high standard for yourself in research, and ensure that each source you use to support your ideas and writing meets that high standard of credibility.
You will need to use reliable sources for your work, to write professionally and with integrity. Based on what you read, consider what criteria you should use to evaluate your source. A couple of guides to help you out are:
To summarize the recommendations in the sites and also my own tips:
1. Evaluate the site itself. If it is not well known, like a major magazine or organization, find out more about it. See if the site has an “About” page. If not, that’s a red flag. Look to see when the last update was for the site (generally published at the bottom of the page). See who the authors/writers are on the site, and the publishers (if any). Google them.
2. Look up the authors. This is so important, I have a separate post for this.
3. Get an idea what kind of sites are generally reliable. A .gov site is an official government site in the US. Similar sites in other countries have their own designation, i.e., .UK, .DE, .JP, .AU, and so on. I’m not going to say that a government site is always reliable, but in general facts and figures it can be. Keep your own sense of how to look for primary sources and alternative information.
Some may think that a .org is indicia of reliability, but that’s not so. Anyone can get an .org, including hate groups. In fact, some hate groups disguise their agenda in articles on their sites, pretending to be informational articles. Don’t depend upon the .org–I’ll emphasize again to check out the About the Author or About the Organization. Even checking the organization in a Google search can tell you something that the organization/author chooses not to tell you. I have found, for example, that some hate groups have websites purporting to provide information on persons and topics (they also will have .org websites), and write/present their ‘information’ in a manner that you can’t tell at first you’re reading something from a hate group.
When I was teaching a course on Eastern Religion, I asked students to find out something interesting about one of the spiritualties. Some students posted information from websites that claimed to be about Eastern religions. These were sites from practitioners and churches which were not remotely fair and accurate to the topic, referring to Buddhism, for example, as being ‘satanic’ and ‘immoral’ and without a standard of ethics (all of which is untrue, just for the record). My students thought the statements were true because…this was a site on the internet, and by a church. Clearly, the lesson here is that you cannot just accept what someone says because it’s on a website. Read about the organization and see what kind of organization it is. If you, or anyone, is searching for information on LGBTQ+ topics, you’ll see all kinds of misinformation exists under the guise of truth.
So many new domains are out, that other than government and school (.edu in the US), the designations become meaningless. You’ll need to investigate the site with critical thinking.
4. Another way to evaluate credibility is to see what sources your source website is using. You can see that more in this article by McGraw-Hill which also offers some good ideas about research, and this one by Lee College.
5. The website might be in essence, dead. No one has maintained it in years. Check that date at the bottom to be sure.
6. Start with something reliable and let that lead you to other sources. Review some books at your area library, and ask librarians to help you. Find a generally reliable source and see if it gives recommendations for other sources. For example, you might check the New York Times, or THOMAS at the Library of Congress. Find an expert in the topic (after researching that expert, of course) and see if you can contact that person by email/social media to ask what sources the expert uses. Look for trade/professional organizations sites.
7. Finally, sometimes you can use Wikipedia, and About.com. Wikipedia and About can be resources to find other sources. The reason why Wikipedia is considered unreliable by researchers and teachers is that the articles and information is edited by ‘anyone.’ So while it is a populist success, you are depending upon a stranger’s integrity. It has also been famously hacked and pranked. Do not trust it–look for the source links at the bottom of the article for a new research trail. About is dependent upon the expertise of the topic author, and is dependent upon the individual author’s opinion. Again, you can use it for a start and see where you can go from there. Using something like Yahoo Answers is really a don’t-go-there option. If you can type your query into a Yahoo Answers box, you can type it in Google and come up with something better.
Copyright Alex Fiano 2012-2016