Back in the Dark Ages when I was an undergraduate, sources were hard to find, but easy to evaluate. Students these days have the opposite problem. Sources are very easy to find, but can be very hard to evaluate. If you want to use a web source for an academic assignment, you are responsible for evaluating it – making sure it fits your assignment, that it’s high quality, and that it wasn’t plagiarized (yes, if you use a source that was plagiarized, you have plagiarized.)
What do we mean by evaluate? You can check out the Merriam Webster dictionary definition here. Definition 2 from Merriam-Webster is the closest for our purposes: “to determine the significance, worth, or condition of usually by careful appraisal and study.”
It’s tempting to use the most convenient source. Doing so is a good way to fail an assignment. So, how do you evaluate web sources to ensure you are using a quality source? I’ve given you a list of things (see below) to look for, but it can help to have an aide-mémoire (look at definition 1 this time.) Yes, it’s silly and hokey (definition 1 AND 2) and a bunch of other related adjectives, but I bet you’ll remember it.
Please watch all of this State Farm commercial* and the first 30 seconds or so of S/S 2014 | Barcelona.
Who is the real French model – the State Farm guy (Eric Filipkowski) or Clément Chabernaud? When you make your decision, you are evaluating. For a simple question like this, the process of evaluation happens very quickly. In fact, what you’re doing is comparing the two gentlemen against your idea of what a French Model should look like. Your criteria may include:
- context (one was on a runway, the other was in a commercial)
- their web presence
Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy to decide if a web source is a “real French model” or “fake.” With time and practice, you can reach the point where evaluating a web source is straightforward. Until you reach that point, it’s helpful to keep a cheat sheet on hand to help you decide
Use the criteria below to help you decide if your source is a “real” French model or a “fake” one. These criteria are the same ones you use to buy a car or a computer or anything else expensive, they’ve just been tweaked a bit to apply to information sources.
There are four basic categories you’ll need to consider: (see details below)
When you’re trying to decide if a web source is okay to use in a paper, you’ll need to consider at least one of the items in each category. For more complex sources such as peer reviewed articles, you’ll need to consider several items in each category.
Fake or hoax sites
You may run into sites that you think might be fake. Not sure? There are several things you can do to check. The first is to use a website that specializes in debunking internet (and other) stories. Two of the better known are Snopes and the Museum of Hoaxes. (Note: these sites use ads to help support themselves, but are still considered mostly accurate at this time.) You can also check Wikipedia or just try googling or binging and see what comes up.
DON’T FORGET TO USE COMMONSENSE!
For an evaluation checklist with text & video examples go to:
Evaluating websites, be they general sites, specialty sites, blogs, wikis, or videos, is tricky because many are missing the types of information normally used to evaluate a source.
Can’t find the date or any information about the author? This may be a good reason to avoid using a web source.
Evaluating web sources
- Is the web page clearly relevant to your topic?
- For example: you are writing a paper on how steroid use has affected public perception of baseball.
- You find a web page about the chemistry of steroids. While this website may be useful for background information, this website is not directly relevant. You need to find a better source.
- Cite only a single page or section from a website. Do not cite an entire website!
- Exception: you are writing a paper on website design (or something similar) and using the entire website as an example, not an information source.
Can you use related web pages? Yes, but: Using a general web page as a source is iffy enough as it is. Don’t add to the problem by trying to use a source that is not clearly and directly relevant. Use related web pages for background only.
Right kind of web page? Popular/scholarly/trade? Primary or secondary?
- Most web pages are popular.
- Websites with primary sources suitable for academic research are usually associated with universities, museums and other academically inclined institutions, or with government archives, and the like.
- Most trade websites are published by professional associations.
As with articles from library databases, you need to keep in mind: who is the audience?
- Look for web sources that have authors and provide information about the author.
If you can’t figure out who wrote/posted the information (be it a personal author or a group of some kind), then you should find a different source.
EXCEPTION 1: Some government and association sites do not list authors. They have what are called “corporate authors.” This means you use the name of the association or the government department or agency as the author.
EXCEPTION 2: If you’re using the source as an example as opposed to a source of information, you can use a source that lacks important information.
- Look at your assignment and see what your instructor requires.
- If your instructor didn’t mention dates, then think about your topic and whether it needs really current sources or older ones will do.
- If you can’t find a date on a website, try to find the same information on a different website or in library databases.zasssssss
Dates can be hard to find.
- Check at the bottom of the page, “About us” links, and other links with information about the site to find the information.
- If there is a copyright date plus an updated date, use the updated date.
- If there is a range (2008-2010, for example), use the range (in other words, use 2008-2010 instead of a single year.
- Yes, if you want to use a web page, then it’s your responsibility to either find a date or be able to list 3 or more places you checked.
- Does the information agree with the other articles and sources that you’ve found?
- If the information doesn’t agree with most of the other sources, do the authors clearly tell you why they disagree and present evidence to support their ideas?
- If you have both web pages and a magazine or journal article that say the same thing, it’s usually better to use the magazine or journal articles, because it’s usually clear who wrote the articles and you know the name of the magazine or journal.
Trustworthy web sources
- Web pages from universities, museums, other academically inclined institutions, or governments usually have trustworthy material.
- Web pages from non-profit institutions are often trustworthy, although you need to watch for bias.
- EXCEPTION: Universities and other institutions often allow students and others to post web pages. These web pages may be good quality or they may not.
- Be extra-cautious when using web pages that are not clearly done by experts at the institution (experts = faculty, curators, etc.)
- Using student or other web pages not written by experts increases your chances of accidentally plagiarizing.
- Even when using web pages done by experts, be sure to evaluate for information quality. Experts can produce poor quality information too.
How do you find all of the information listed above? You have to look for it. When evaluating and citing websites, you are expected to be a detective.
- You need to be willing to track down dates, author information, etc.
- Check “About Us”
- Check “Contact Us”
- Check out whatever looks like it might have information.
- Don’t forget the bottom of the page – that’s often where copyright information is.
You are responsible for finding whatever information is available.
Don’t want to do all that work? Use an article from a library database or a scholarly search engine.
Other things to keep in mind when evaluating a source:
There is also the issue of your own personal biases. It’s impossible to be completely free of bias when doing an academic paper or project. The goal is to be as objective as possible. You do this by presenting the major opposing viewpoints relating to your topic. Papers and projects that present both sides are stronger because they show that the writer knows what s/he is talking about and that s/he can defend his/her position against all comers. Doing an argumentative paper? In an argumentative paper you are defending one side of a question. An argumentative paper will be stronger if you support your side by taking the points of the opposing side and demolishing them.
Avoid ad hominem arguments. In ad hominem arguments, the person is attacked, not the argument. If you use an ad hominem argument, you’ve already lost because people assume you are using an ad hominem argument because you can’t defend your position.
Example: Calling someone a ‘commie liberal’ instead of explaining why you think gun control laws are wrong is an example of an ad hominem argument.
Be sure to attack the information,, not the person.
Sounds like evaluation is a lot of work, doesn’t it? In the beginning, it can be. Once you’ve had some practice, you should be able to evaluate almost automatically. You need to know how to evaluate your sources because you are responsible for using the best information you can find for papers and other assignments.
*NOTE: I do not have State Farm insurance. This link is merely for educational purposes and should not be considered as any kind of endorsement for State Farm.