EVALUATING INTERNET SOURCES
Determining the quality of information located through research is not a clearly defined process. No single measure of validity, veracity, or value exists, particularly when it comes to judging Internet sources. Anyone can post any type of information to a web site, and no rules govern this kind of electronic publication. As a result, you will have to rely on clues that you can gather from a site to decide whether the information on it is worth including in your research. You might ask yourself the following questions: What makes this source credible? How will it strengthen and support my purpose for writing? Why should I quote it?
One way to evaluate Internet sources is to use the ARCS method, a process that considers whether information is Accurate, Reasonable, Credible, and Supported. Many, if not most, sources will not score well in every category, but using ARCS can help you decide which information is of acceptable quality for your purpose and which is not.
Asking yourself questions about information on a particular site can assist you in judging its accuracy. Is it detailed, exact, factual, current and comprehensive? Information that was accurate ten or fifteen years ago may have been disproved or revised by subsequent research. A site may present current information but may include only part of the story or leave out important details. A site might not acknowledge or respond to opposing views, or it may be vague or make sweeping generalizations. To judge accuracy, you might consider several factors:
Is the source timely? Some works are timeless (certain literary or philosophical works for instance). Others have limited usefulness because they are called into question by further research or thinking in the discipline (theories of psychology, education, or rhetoric for example). Still others can become outdated very quickly (news of developments in technology). You will have to determine the age of information on a site and then decide whether it makes any difference in terms of your research project.
In some cases, you might use old information in order to contrast it with current work, but other projects might require that you include only up-to-the-minute data.
Is the source comprehensive? No one can read all the existing information on a subject before coming to a conclusion. And no single source will offer the whole story--that is why researchers consult more than one source. However, any source that purposely leaves out important facts, or that fails to mention qualifications, consequences, or alternatives, may be misleading or even intentionally deceptive.
Who is the intended audience for this source and what is its purpose?
It is important to look at the intended audience for a site. If you find an article about the moons of Jupiter that is written for children, it will not be an appropriate source for the research paper in your senior-level astronomy course. However it may give you valuable information for your class in methods of teaching elementary science. It is also essential that you consider the purpose for which the information was written. Information that claims to be objective but has a hidden purpose of persuasion or a hidden bias is common in all media, and the Internet is certainly no exception. For instance, an article covering various treatment options may actually have been written to persuade you that one method is the best. The information in such an article will usually be biased in some way. You may still be able to use the source, but only if you consider the bias as you use the information.
You undoubtedly have some sense of what is reasonable, but focusing on particular aspects of a site can help you make your evaluation. You might find it useful to examine a source looking at whether it is objective, fair, believable, and consistent.
Is the information objective? It probably is not possible for authors to be completely objective, but that fact does not have to prevent them from achieving a degree of reasonableness. One of the biggest hindrances to objectivity is conflict of interest. If a writer will benefit in some way (and it doesnít have it be financially) by convincing you to accept his or her assertions, it will be difficult for that writer to remain objective. For example, a site dedicated to protecting the environment may criticize business, industry, even the federal government for certain practices and policies. While the sites objections might be legitimate, you will probably need to consult other sources before accepting them outright. You will want to look carefully at ways information might be slanted.
Is the information fair? Fairness requires that information be presented in a balanced and reasonable manner. Does the source ignore significant issues or opposing opinions? One hint that a source is fair is its tone. A fair source will usually use a reasoned approach and a calm tone and will present material thoughtfully. Watch out for language that reveals anger, hate, or derision, as it often indicates an attempt to provoke you emotionally rather to appeal to your ability to think rationally.
Is the information believable? You can rely on your own knowledge to examine whether or not information is believable. Is it likely that the information is valid? Does it make sense? Is it consistent with what you and others have experienced or read about? Does it seem exaggerated? If it is surprising in some way, you will probably want more evidence showing its accuracy than you might otherwise require. Of course some information that is astounding is also true. Just make sure that you are careful about substantiating this kind of material.
Is the information consistent? It may seem unnecessary to you to mention that information should not contradict itself. However, you might be surprised to discover inconsistencies or even outright contradictions in information that twists facts or employs lies. Obviously, these problems are evidence of problems with reasonableness.
All of us make decisions based on information that we accept as credible. Therefore, we place a great deal of significance on the authenticity and reliability of that information. Some questions you might ask in examining the credibility of a source include the following: What factors make this a believable source? How does the author know this information? Why should I accept this information as valid? You can look at specific factors to examine credibility.
What are the authorís credentials? Does the source give you information about the authorís education or experience as they relate to the topic? Is there a point of contact provided? If the author is a corporate one (government, non-profit, business/industry), is the organization well known?
What kind of reputation does the author have? Is the author an acknowledged expert, a scholar? Is the author known to be thoughtful, reasonable, and informed?
Is there evidence of quality control? Is the information from a journal or other publication that examines content before it is published? Is the information presented in the name of an organization that would have approved it?
Does the source corroborate the position of other authorities? Does the author present adequate evidence to show that at least some experts in the field accept his or her position? This question is especially important if the information runs contrary to widely accepted theories or propositions,
In order for you to convince you to accept their assertions, authors need to provide adequate support to convince you that those assertions are valid. Questions such as the following may be helpful to you: What sources does the site use? Are the sources identified? (Make a special point to look for documentation of any statistics.) Is there a works cited list? Is there information about how you can contact someone if you have questions about the material? Two factors can assist you in judging support: corroboration and what statisticians refer to as external consistency.
Is the material corroborated? See if other sources support this source. Even when you are looking at matters of opinion, valid ones are likely to have more than one knowledgeable supporter. If you canít locate at least two other sources that agree, you should try to do some research into other opinions before deciding whether to use the source (and if you do, make sure to point out that it disagrees with widely accepted positions). Corroboration is most important when you find startling information. The claim may be true, but you will need to be particularly demanding about the research you find to prove its validity.
Does the source have external consistency? In simple terms, external consistency compares what is familiar in a new source with what is familiar in other sources. Is the new source consistent or compatible with ideas or facts you already know? If its discussion of what you already know is flawed, its presentation of unfamiliar material is probably flawed as well. Thus, you should be skeptical about accepting and using it.
The ARCS method can be used with any kind of source you are considering for inclusion in a research project; however, it is especially important to apply it to Internet sources since they are not regulated.