The Authority of a Web site
There are a few fundamental problems involved in Web research. Anyone with the right software and access to the Internet can publish a document on the Web, regardless of the accuracy of the information, or the quality of its presentation.
While low budget pamphlets and vanity press books are easy to spot because of their cheap paper, weak bindings, and photocopied print, visual signs of self-publication are sometimes difficult to find in a well-designed Web site.
Another matter of concern for researchers --though this is a great advantage for authors-- is that Web pages can be altered by the author at any time, and as often as the author chooses. It is possible for you to quote a Web page in a paper, then return to the page in the future and find that the passage you quoted has been rewritten or deleted. Unless there are strict guarantees of the stability of the information on a Web site, it should be considered a work in progress.
To gauge the authority of a Web page, you should consider:
- The Author
- The author's name and e-mail address should be provided at the bottom of every page of the site, or at least somewhere on the site's home page. If there is a link from the site to the author's personal home page, or a list of links to related sites, examine it and consider these questions:
- Is the author an authority in the field, or just a commentator? What are the author's qualifications?
- Does the author have any other publications? What proportion of them are peer reviewed print publications?
- If the author has a list of links of interest, do the selections or annotations suggest that the author may have a bias or special interest?
- The Site's Host or Sponsor
- There should be a link in the home page, usually in the footer, to the organization that sponsors or hosts the site. Follow this link and examine the organization's main page.
- If the host is a serial or periodical publication (journal, magazine, newspaper):
- Check to see that it has an ISSN (International Standard Serial Number). Web serials that do not have ISSN numbers are probably home-grown, and will probably have less authority than other publications.
- If the host is an independent service provider:
- Check the organization's home page to make sure it has a postal address and phone number available. If it does not, the site is probably not a credible source.
- Examine the organization's statement of purpose or list of objectives to see if there are any special interests they may seek to promote in the sites they sponsor.
- Does the author have an affiliation with a known institution or respected organization?
- The Dates Created and Last Modified
- Every Web site should provide the dates when it was created and last updated.
- Check to make sure the information on the site is up to date. When doing research online, examine the most recent materials first.
- Sometimes a site will contain a page with a complete account of all changes and updates made to the site. Check this page to see how often the site has been updated.
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Evaluating pages for relevance | Evaluating pages for accuracy
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