We tend to turn to Google for answers: what will the weather be like tomorrow, is the traffic bad on Mass Ave, who won the Kentucky Derby last year, which type of squirrels are native to England, etc.
Within the vast ocean of the internet, we have sites we go to routinely, sources we trust: those that are familiar to us from the print world (The New York Times, the Boston Globe), people and organizations whose names we recognize and believe are reliable.
But what about when a search turns up an unfamiliar source? How do we know if it’s trustworthy? Unlike books, there’s no one place on every website where we can check certain information, like the author or the publication date; all books begin with this information (click on the image below to see it larger).
A guide from the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins states, “When you use a…library, the books, journals and other resources have already been evaluated by scholars, publishers and librarians. Every resource you find has been evaluated in one way or another before you ever see it. When you are using the World Wide Web, none of this applies. There are no filters….Excellent resources reside along side the most dubious. The Internet epitomizes the concept of Caveat lector: Let the reader beware.”
So, how do we know if what we read on the internet is accurate? There are a few things to look for.
Authorship: Who wrote it? Can you find the author’s name, biographical information, professional affiliation, contact information? Use caution when reading anonymous authors’ work.
Accuracy and verifiability: If the work contains facts and figures, do other sources confirm that information? Checking agreement across multiple sources (triangulating) is a good way to make sure the information is correct. How did the author gather his/her information? Do they cite or link to other sources?
Currency (timeliness): Is the source recent? Depending on the topic, it may be very important to have up-to-date information. Is the article or blog post dated? If not, you can usually at least see when the site was last updated by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the page.
Publisher or organization: Is it from a recognized and authoritative source? Pay attention to the domain: is it .com (commercial), .edu (educational institution), .gov (the government), .net (network), or .org (organizational, usually nonprofit)?
Point of view: Truly neutral writing is rare; try to discern the writer’s point of view. They may be making an honest effort at neutrality, or they may have an obvious bias. Again, it’s useful to look at the organization affiliation (if there is one) and the domain; for example, Planned Parenthood and Focus on the Family will have very different perspectives on the issue of, say, sex education in schools.
Context: Does the author reference, cite, or link to outside sources? Is s/he familiar with the work and writing of others on this same topic? Do those sources seem reputable, according to the same criteria above?
Websites vary in design much more than books do, but there are a few common places to find the information above. An author’s byline and the date the piece was published may be at the beginning or end of an article or blog post.
Above: The byline for an article on the website Politico.
If the site is run by one person, there is likely to be an “About” page with biographical information (e.g. Dooce.com). If the site belongs to an organization with which you’re unfamiliar, the “About” page is a good place to start, but you can also gather information about it from an outside source, like Wikipedia. There’s usually a link to the “About” page in the main navigation at the top of the page, or in the footer links all the way at the bottom.
Above: The “above the fold” section of Politico’s website. Red circles highlight the domain and the link to the About page. (A red X covers an ad in the header space.)
Remember, if you’re interested in doing research for school, work, or a personal project, the library’s databases are available 24/7. Just log in with your library card number and access a wealth of reliable resources.
Got questions? The library is just a phone call or visit away!