Evaluating Web sites for accuracy

The importance of context

To do accurate research, it is necessary to examine a wide variety of sources, and compare them against each other. For the sake of verifying the accuracy of a Web source, it is a good idea to examine it alongside printed periodicals and published books on the same topic.

Make sure that each Web article you plan to cite has a complete list of works cited. This list should contain a reasonable number of printed sources to balance any online sources it may cite. Then consider:

The Content
Try to determine whether the source offers something new, or if it just rehashes what other sources have already expressed more forcefully:

  • Does the author base his/her entire argument on assumptions of facts which have been shown to be misconceptions in more than one other reliable source? In other words, does the argument arise out of ideas which are known to be mistaken?
  • Does this page present a new perspective on the topic, or does it just summarize other sources? If it is just a summary, use it to find the originals, but do not cite it as a source. Original sources always carry more weight than second-hand citations.
  • Can you find any cases where the author has plagiarized other sources? In other words, has the author used other authors' words or ideas without properly citing them, so as to pass them off as original ideas?
The Tone
If you are going to use a source to support or refute an argument, consider:

  • Is the tone (whether serious, humorous, critical, etc.) and writing style of the source appropriate for an academic discussion of the topic?

If the information in a Web page is available as a print publication, it may be better to find and cite the printed version. Print is a stabler medium than the Web. Because Web pages are moved and deleted so often, future readers of your paper may not be able to find the Web version of the source at the same location where you found it. Another reason is that page number citations are more precise than page title citations. There are no page numbering conventions for Web sites, so parenthetical citations have to use just the title of the source. This makes it hard for readers to find the cited passages in the original.


To test these criteria against some examples of misinformation on the Web, see Beck

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Version 1.2
Copr. 1997 Craig Branham
BRANHACC@SLU.EDU
Saint Louis University
Created: 03-April-97
Last Modified: 24-Oct-97

URL for this Document: http://www.slu.edu/departments/english/research/page03.html