What are the clues for inferring a source’s relevancy and credibility? Let’s start with evaluating websites, since we all do so much of our research online. But we’ll also include where to find clues relevant to sources in other formats when they differ from what’s good to use with websites. Looking at specific places in the sources will mean you don’t have to read all of every resource to determine its worth to you.
Note: Since we all do so much of our research online, this lesson emphasizes how to evaluate websites as sources. But along the way, we’ll interject information about evaluating sources in other formats, too, when it differs from what’s used with websites.
What Used to Help
It used to be easier to draw conclusions about an information source’s credibility, depending on whether it was a print source or a web source. We knew we had to be more careful about information on the web–simply because all the filters that promoted accuracy involved in the print publishing process were absent from most web publishing. After all, it takes very little money, skill, and responsible intent to put content on the web, compared with what has to be done to convince print publishers your content is accurate and that they will make money by printing it.
However, many publishers who once provided only print materials have now turned to the web and have brought along their rigorous standards for accuracy. Among them are the publishers of government, university, and scholarly (peer-reviewed) journal websites. Sites for U.S. mainline news organizations also strive for accuracy rather than persuasion–because they know their readers have traditionally expected it. All in all, more websites now take appropriate care for accuracy than what used to be true on the web.
Nonetheless, it still remains very easy and inexpensive to publish on the web without any of the filters associated with print. So we all still need the critical thinking skills you’ll learn here to determine whether websites’ information is credible and relevant enough to suit your purpose.
6 Factors to Consider
Evaluating a website means considering the six factors below in relation to your purpose for the information. These factors are what you should gather clues about and use to decide whether a site is right for your purpose.
- The source’s neighborhood on the web
- Author and/or publisher’s background
- The degree of bias
- Recognition from others
- Thoroughness of the content
- Currency of the content
How many factors you consider at any one time depends on your purpose when seeking information. In other words, you’ll consider all six factors when you’re looking for information for a research project or other high-stakes situation where making mistakes have serious consequences. But you might consider only the first three factors for many of your other information needs.