A Student's Guide to WWW Research

Part 2 of 3

by
Craig Branham
Saint Louis University

Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages
Glossary: part 1

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources

Glossary: part 2

The Anatomy of a Web page

Before we can begin to gather the information we will need to assess the accuracy and authority of a Web site, we will need to figure out what this information is and where to find it. In this part of the guide, I will describe the different parts of a Web page, and explain what information can be found in each part.

Depending on the nature of the content, not all Web authors follow exactly the page layout conventions I will describe here, though better authors usually do. But however an author designs a Web site, the layout of the pages should at least be consistent. In better Web sites, all of the pages share the same basic structure and layout.

I should mention here that the design of a Web site makes a powerful statement about its author and the information it contains. Authors that take little care in the way they present their information probably do not have information worth caring about to begin with.

Pages come in two varieties:

Home pages:
A home page is like a title page, table of contents, index, and introduction combined. The home page is the first, or "top," page in a site. It usually contains some prefatory material and a complete list of links to each of the site's major content pages, or to each major content section in larger sites.

Content pages:
Where home pages describe what information the site contains, content pages contain the information itself. Each content page should have a link "up" to the site's home page. If you follow a link from one page to the content page on another site, look for the link (usually at the bottom or top) to the destination site's home page to see what else is available there.

Most Web pages, whether home or content pages, have a similar basic structure. Here is the layout of a typical Web page:




From Horton and Lynch, Yale C/AIM Style Manual, 1st Ed. 2nd edition available at:
http://info.med.yale.edu/caim/manual/contents.html

The Headerusually contains a text title or graphic banner. The header may also contain links that lead directly to other pages in the site, or a set of "next" and "previous" buttons linked to the next and previous pages in a sequence.

The Body contains the actual content, including text and links. Links --those active "hot-words" in the text-- can lead to another page, a different site, or to a different section of the same page.

The Footercontains critical information about the page: it usually shows the date when it was created and last updated, the name of the author, the e-mail address of the author, and the name of the institution, organization, or company that sponsors the site.

Knowing the date when a page was written and published on the Web is an important step in evaluating its content. If you encounter a page which does not have this information, your Web browser can at least tell you when it was published. On Netscape Navigator 4.0, for instance, select "Page Info" under the "View" menu to find out when the open page was put on its server.


Current page: The Anatomy of a Web Page
Home page  |  Evaluating Web pages for relevance
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Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages
Glossary: part 1

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources

Glossary: part 2

Evaluating Web pages for relevance

General evaluation criteria

Purpose and Audience

Most Web sites are not designed with the student researcher in mind. Companies design Web sites to advertise products to the browsing public at large; special interest groups create sites for select audiences, for those who share their views; and scholars may publish research on the Web for professional academic audiences. To understand how the information contained in Web sites like these will fit into the framework of a research project, or if indeed any of it is appropriate, consider the authors' purpose and audience.

Purpose
  • Is the site supposed to be educational or entertaining?
  • Is this site meant to be informational or promotional?
Audience
  • What does the author assume the user already knows about the topic of the site?
  • Based on your answer to the last question, should this site be of greatest interest to the general user, the enthusiast, or the professional?




Current page: Evaluating Web Pages for Relevance
The anatomy of a web page  |  The authority of a web page
Return to home page



Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages
Glossary: part 1

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources

Glossary: part 2

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.

Current page: The Authority of a Web Page
Evaluating web pages for relevance  |  Evaluating web pages for accuracy
Return to home page



Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages
Glossary: part 1

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources

Glossary: part 2

Evaluating Web pages 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

Current page: Evaluating Web Pages for Accuracy
The authority of a page  |  Web page types
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Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages
Glossary: part 1

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources

Glossary: part 2

Web page types

The Web pages most useful for research generally fall into four basic categories (based on those identified by Alexander and Tate).

  1. Informational Pages, which include independent and scholarly research, reference sources, and fact sheets.
  2. News and Journalistic Sources, including news wire sites, electronic journals, and online magazines and newspapers.
  3. Advocacy Pages are Web sites created to "raise consciousness" about a particular view of an issue. They are most often sponsored by non-profit organizations, but independent-minded activists often publish their own literature.
  4. Personal Home Pages are fairly informal places where authors can publish their resumes; list links to their favorite sites; and promote their many publications, accomplishments, and miscellaneous ideas.










Current page: Web Page Types
Evaluating pages for accuracy   |  Informational pages
Return to home page



Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages
Glossary: part 1

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources

Glossary: part 2

Informational pages

Informational pages may be assembled by independent authors, companies, or by government.

Government sites, servers whose domain names usually end with .gov, or .gov + .country code, often provide access to excellent primary documents and related resources. At government sites, it is common to find transcripts of legislation and political speeches, and other forms of official information from various governmental branches, departments, and agencies. Though not all government sites are free of ideologically slanted information and good-natured propagandizing, government sites provide some of the most reliable information on the Web. For a weekly guide to American government sites, see The Great American Web Site.

The informational sites put online by companies and individuals are a bit harder to evaluate. When you encounter sites published by individuals on a commercial ISP (like America Online, Primenet, etc.), it is important to establish the authoritativeness of the information, and scrutinize the author's credentials. With informational sites sponsored by companies, examine the sponsor's home page to determine what the company may have to gain in publishing the information: whether public relations or promotional value.

Examine the four sites below. Which would be reliable sources and why?


Current page: Informational web pages
Page Types  |  News and journalistic sources
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Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages
Glossary: part 1

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources

Glossary: part 2

News and journalistic sources

For the last few years, news sites have become a powerful supplement to regular periodicals and television news programs. For example, while watching a news story on CNN, you can turn to your computer and go to CNN Interactive to find a list of related Web sources, watch or listen to simulcasts of important related events as they happen, and download pictures. Magazines like the Atlantic Monthly maintain sites (see The Atlantic Unbound) where readers can discuss articles in message forums, contact the author of an article, find updates to older articles, and search the publisher's archives.

News sources are good for looking deeper into a story with late breaking, specialized, or interactive information which often cannot be crammed into the confines of programming schedules and printed space. They are also good for finding archival transcripts of full articles. In general, however, they are bad sources to cite in an academic paper for the simple reason that information posted on news sites is ephemeral. Because news sites have to be updated constantly, the article that you cite in a paper this week, may be moved to a different URL or deleted entirely by next week. Some readers may also prefer to have a citation from the original publication. If there is a printed version of an article you find on a news Web site available at the library, find the printed version and cite it instead.

Accuracy and authority issues often apply with Web news sources as well. Examine the four sites below. Which would be reliable sources and why? How might you use these sources?


Current page: News and journalistic sources
Informational web pages  |  Advocacy web pages
Return to home page


Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages
Glossary: part 1

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources

Glossary: part 2

Advocacy pages

Political and social advocates have found the Web to be a cost-effective way to disseminate information about their causes of choice. "Advocates" are people who have mostly made up their minds about a particular issue, and believe in their ideas strongly enough to work with like-minded people to change public policy. As a result, advocacy literature is rarely even-handed in its treatment of issues. Advocacy Web sites should be treated as ideological infomercials, and not, as advocates often claim, as "public education."

While the information presented in advocacy pages is slanted by definition, advocates are often the only people who care enough about particular issues to thoroughly investigate them. At times, political groups are the only source for certain kinds of news and information. Yet, it is always important to keep in mind that while advocacy groups are quick to find fault with "mainstream" sources, they will be less likely to critically evaluate information that suits their particular view of the world.

Note that advocacy groups are often considered non-profit organizations. If the group has its own domain name, it will usually end with .org.

Take a look at these advocacy pages. What useful information do they provide? How should you use this information?


Current Page: Advocacy web pages
News and journalistic sources  |  Personal home pages
Return to home page



Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages
Glossary: part 1

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources

Glossary: part 2

Personal home pages

Personal home pages are like Web resumés, or calling cards. People often put the URL for their home page in the footer of all of their mail messages and Web pages to promote themselves and their interests. We have already seen how personal home pages provide invaluable information about the author of articles we may find online.

A glance at the personal home page of an author will often confirm suspicions the reader may develop about an author's special interests or credentials. Those authors who have a number of publications, both online and in print, are more likely to provide reliable sources. Authors' home pages will also provide you with links to more of their articles.

Examine the sites below. What do the home pages tell you about the authors' interests, and why might it be important to know about them? For what kinds of research would these sources prove useful?








Current Page: Personal home pages
Advocacy web pages  |  Glossary: part 1
Return to home page



Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages
Glossary: part 1

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources

Glossary: part 2

Glossary: part 1


domain name peer reviewed serial tone URL

Domain Name

A domain name is a server's Internet address. A domain name can be alphanumeric (sluavb.slu.edu) or numeric (165.134.1.25). A "server" is a computer that users have to connect with (with their "client") in order to reach the Internet.

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Peer Reviewed

An academic publication, like Early Modern Studies, usually has an editorial group, composed of specialists in the field, to review all the articles submitted for publication. Who better to review a scholar's work than a group of the scholar's peers? Peer reviewed publications have greater authority than others; an article that has been subjected to the scrutiny of a group of scholars will probably be more reliable than one that has not.

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Serial

Serial means "in a series." A Serial is a category of publications that includes periodicals like magazines, academic journals, newspapers, and other works published in a series.

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Tone

The tone of a piece refers to the quality of the author's voice, present in the writing, that conveys the author's attitude toward his or her audience. The tone of a piece might be described as angry, mild, detached, humorous, etc.

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URL

A URL (Uniform, or Universal, Resource Locator) is the Internet "address" for any file in the world. If we look at the URL for this page,

http://www.slu.edu/departments/english/research/gloss.html

we can see the filename (gloss.html), the file's protocol (http), the name of the Web server (www.slu.edu), and the path to the file (/departments/english/research/). We can thus read the URL: "There is a WWW file (http://) on the SLU server (www.slu.edu), in the "departments" directory, in the "english" sub-directory, in the "research" sub-sub-directory; and it is called "gloss.html."

For more information about URLs, see NCSA's "A Beginner's Guide to URL's."

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Current Page: Glossary: part 1
Personal home pages  |  Finding resources: Introduction
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Copyright Notice


All materials on this website are copyrighted (©) by Craig Branham.

The materials available on this site were designed to be read on the World Wide Web. They may not be reprinted and redistributed in any form. I extend permission to individuals and non-profit institutions to create links from a WWW page to any document on the site, as long as it is clear from the link context that these materials are not owned or affiliated with any project or organization other than the Department of English at Saint Louis University.

Editors and authors of magazines, trade journals, books, and other print or electronic media must obtain permission to reproduce any part of this site. These materials were not intended for print publication or distribution.


Version 1.1
© Copr. 1997 Craig Branham
BRANHACC@SLU.EDU
Saint Louis University
Created: 27-Sept-97
Last Modified: 12-Jan-98

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