Imagine the following: you are doing a literature search on a topic, but have really hard time discovering enough background information in traditional sources such as books and journal articles. Then, you miraculously find a web page that contains all the information you need. Just go ahead and cite it? Think again! How do you know if it’s accurate and trustworthy?
More and more people are starting to realize the potential of internet as a catalyst for speeding up scientific progress. As a result, internet-based sources such as unpublished manuscripts, researcher’s pages or blog posts are slowly finding their way into the realm of scientific psychology. Now, as the world of information is literally at your finger tips, the internet makes it possible for psychology students from all over the world to access quickly information on various topics. This vast amount of information can be very valuable not only for exploring possible research ideas, but also for discovering background information when writing your papers. However, relying on internet-based sources without first critically evaluating them can be risky and lead to some unwanted or even embarrassing results. To avoid this, the following five criteria will help you evaluate the quality of the source at hand (Tate, 2010):
Authority is the extent to which an individual or organization is recognized as having expert knowledge in the field. Indeed, much of the risk of reading inaccurate or mediocre information on the internet stems from the fact that everyone with internet access can publish information. That’s why finding out more about the author is the crucial first step in determining how trustworthy the source is. Here are a few things to keep in mind while evaluating the quality of the source: Is the author’s name and their qualifications written on the page? Can you find feedback from other users on the author’s previous works? Is there a link to the author’s home page? Can you find any contact information such as an email? Be careful, though, because you cannot be absolutely sure who ultimately has the right to publish material on this page. Even if there is a name, it may not be the author who actually wrote it.
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine how accurate the source is, especially if you have little knowledge in the topic. Clearly, most internet pages don’t go through the same process of reviewing and editing as peer-reviewed journal articles do. However, even though the quality of internet-based sources may vary greatly, there are certain indicators that will help you: Has the author cited their sources of information? And more importantly, is there a reference list with all the used sources? Is there someone who edits the information on this web page or verifies its validity?
Since no work can be completely objective and free of bias, objectivity can be an issue not only in internet-based sources, but also in traditional ones. If you are already familiar with who author is, then evaluating the objectivity of internet-based sources shouldn’t be more difficult than that of traditional ones. However, because the internet is a very convenient medium for propagating ideas, you should also take into consideration what the author’s motivation to write the text was: Does thе author use it as means for spreading its ideas? If the web page is run by an organization or a group of people, is the piece of information affected by their beliefs? Do the advertisers or sponsors influence the content of the information in any way?
One of the greatest advantages of internet-based sources is the quickness with which they become published and, if necessary, later revised. However, this advantage comes at a cost, because one can never be sure when the source was really published. A lot of websites don’t provide the publication date, and those that do, often don’t indicate what it refers to: Is this date the time when the work was written or rather when it was published? Or perhaps that’s the date when it was last edited? Sometimes the author may be the only one who really knows the exact answer. Therefore, if you believe that this is an important thing to know about a particular source, you should try contacting them.
Unlike traditional sources, the structure of internet-based ones may not be immediately apparent. Some sources may not have an introduction or outline of the information that is covered. Hence, while reading it you should also try to estimate to what extent this source reviews the topic. How in-depth is the material reviewed? Is the background information sufficient for the purpose of this source? Are the conclusions relevant for the information that is covered?
As you have probably noticed, it can be difficult the put the line between these five criteria because some of them often go hand by hand. For example, the authority of the source often also predicts its accuracy (Tate, 2010). That’s why, rather than relying solely on any one of these criteria alone, you should try to evaluate the source according to the overall impression you get from all of them.
Internet-based sources, however, also have a few other challenges, for instance the susceptibility of internet pages to alteration or changes in the URL link by which they can be accessed (Dietz-Uhler & Sherman, 2003). Because links to web pages often change (or worse still, completely disappear), it is possible that the page you cited just several months ago may be long gone by the time your reader tries to find it.
The good, the bad and the ugly
If you wish to do some exercising with your newly learned skills, Susan Beck (2009, April 27) offers you a few examples to practice on at her website. This great internet resource will give you first-hand experience on what perils await the uncritical consumer of internet information (including the fact that a couple of the web pages listed there are no longer available because their URL link was changed! 1).
Beck, S. (2009, April 27). The good, the bad & the ugly: Or, why it’s a good idea to evaluate web sources. Retrieved from http://lib.nmsu.edu/instruction/eval.html
Dietz-Uhler, B., & Sherman, R. C. (2003). Using the internet to aid the research process. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), The psychologist’s companion (4th ed., pp. 77-97). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Tate, M. A. (2010). Web wisdom: How to evaluate and create information quality on the web (2nd ed.). Boca Raton, FL: Taylor and Francis Group.
1Even though there are similar resources that are up-to-date, I deliberately chose this one to show you that even websites designed to help you in critical evaluation may not be perfect themselves.
Martin Vasilev is an Editor in JEPS. He is a final year undergraduate student of Psychology at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria, and the author of some of the most popular posts at the JEPS Bulletin (see for example, his post on writing literature reviews, which was reprinted in the MBA Edge, a magazine for Malaysian prospective postgraduate students).