Determining the credibility of a website

Posted by Greten on 01 Feb 2012 under Efficient Internet Research

One of the advantages of the good-old-fashioned library research over the internet is that you can be almost certain that you are getting the correct information. Books are usually made by large reputable publishing house with panels of experts and editors to review the accuracy of information. Websites, on the other hand, seems to have as much misinformation as there are information.

I would say "almost certain" and not "absolutely certain" because there are still books that contain gossips and other information are either incorrect or not verifiable using scientific and other scholarly method. Certain publishing houses operate in tabloid-like sensationalism such that its editorial board will readily approve books about 2012 end-of-the-world predictions and new world order conspiracy theories. Other unreliable books thrive on self-publishing, the business model wherein the author alone shoulders the risk of whether the book will sell or not.

In self-publishing, the author will pay the publishing house the lump sum of money to print certain amount of copies of the book and all the sales of the book goes to the author. The publisher has no stake in monitoring the correctness of the book's content because after all, they were already paid the lump sum of cash. In traditional publishing, the author does not have to pay the publisher, the publisher has its panel of experts to review the book, and the profit on selling the book goes to the publisher with the author being paid a fraction of earnings for every copy of the book sold called royalty.

It is important for us to distinguish between these two because the web has enabled everyone to become self-publishers. This time, there is no need to contact a publishing company that allows self-publishing arrangement. Instead, all the author needs is basic knowledge of internet and in seconds s/he would be able to pump content to his/her blog or some other kind of website. However, there are still too many reliable websites and we could not just ignore them just because self-publishing is easier with website.

While the tips that I am about to explain will not shield you entirely from false information, it would minimize the risk of mistaking them for true information.

Check who's behind the website?

Websites are either run by an individual or by an organization. Websites usually have an "About" or "About Us" section that will tell you who runs the website. A Physics website run by someone who introduce his or herself as a Physics instructor for 10 years definitely has more credibility that a website hobbyist who happen to be interested in Physics. A website run by a university or by a government agency are usually on top in terms of accuracy. The website of NASA, for example, will definitely contain the correct and latest information about celestial bodies.

While it is possible for someone to lie about their credential, the internet also allows us to verify such claim rather quickly. A professor who claimed to have taught in University of the Philippines is likely to be mentioned in the university's website. If there's no mention, err to the conservative side and don't use that website as reference.

Sometimes, depending on the topic you're researching, it might also be crucial to find the political slant of the author or the organization. If say, you're researching about the Theory of Evolution, it would be wise to avoid websites authored by 10 year biology professor who happen to accept the literal creation story as told in Genesis as dogma or websites supervised by fundamentalist Christian groups who treat Bible as history book. Note that not all Christian groups believe in literal Genesis creation story. These references are useful only if you are researching about different attitudes and opinions about Theory of Evolution rather than the Theory of Evolution itself.

Some topics are not matter of certain true facts vs false information but are being debated among the scholars and subject expert themselves. One example is the debate regarding whether Dr. Jose Rizal rejoined the Roman Catholic Church shortly before he died or not. Such case would require extensive tracing of where the information came from. You would need websites for both sides of the debate and you need to judge them based on sound reasoning and availability of evidences.

Fortunately, many website authors are honest as to their level of expertise and experience. It is important to know this to decide how to treat the information obtained from a website. A blog of an investment manager is more credible than the blog of a newbie investor (who admits that he is newbie) just starting to invest in stocks or mutual fund. However, the newbie investor can provide insights that other newbies might need such as mistakes can are likely to be committed by those who are just starting to invest. The key in deciding is if you need an opinion or a fact that can be used as is, then focus on finding the experts' websites, and if you're looking for anecdotal information, newbies and experts are equally valuable references.

Focus of the website

Not everyone can be expert in anything. Human life is limited such that we can only have education and experience in some topics but not all of them. Another way you can measure the credibility of the website is its focus on topic. However, it can be difficult to measure how focused a website is. I will say, for example, a website about natural sciences is focused enough and can be used as reference. A website about Physics... much better. A website about solar neutrinos... too focused, possibly very credible (but don't forget to check who's behind that website) but I don't think it would be useful in more than one occassion.

In particular, I would suggest that you avoid using the following websites as references whenever possible.

General blogs about random anytopic

Many blogs are actually like this. They have categories that range from politics to food to latest gadget... ALL IN ONE BLOG? Never use these blogs as references. If you saw certain information from these blogs, trace where that information came from by using the hyperlink to source (if there are any) or by using the search engine. The website or blog from where that information originates is likely to be more focused in topic and more credible to be cited as reference.

Wiki websites

These are the websites that anyone can edit. This particular feature makes it untrustworthy as reference. It's very much possible for you to quote a sentence or two from a wiki website just for the quoted material to disappear few days or even  just few hours later. Wikipedia is particularly guilty of this. While natural sciences tend to be accurate, topics that are highly politicized tend to change every now and then due to users editing out anything that are not to their liking.

Certain topics in natural science such as Evolution and Global Warming also tend to be politicized and thus prone to "edit-war". My suggestion is you can use Wikipedia to find information and if you find certain information that you need, access the reference materials that were cited and if the information is really there, use those references instead. If the reference is not a website, try to see if it is available in your library. If there is no reference material cited, don't use that information or try using a search engine if that information can be found in other possibly more credible websites.

Article Mills

These are the websites that covers topics just about anything. Similar to general blogs about random topics, the articles in article mills are classified into totally diverse categories that have nothing to do with one another. Some article mills invite writers to provide them with articles but these writers are mostly "have just-enough-knowledge" rather than real experts. Some article mills pay money but others compensate their writers by providing backlinks to their writers' blogs.

The thing with article mills is that, few of their articles can actually be useful but most are "just enough". Think of it that if you have 100 darts, you will certainly hit the bullseye by mere chance even if you're not good at it. The key in using article mills as reference is to check the information about the author and how narrow is his or her claimed of expertise, or if the said expertise actually include the subject of the article. If there is an article about the Philippines and the writer is an expert in "Asian History", it does not sound narrow for me since Asia is very big. Some of the websites that are allegedly article mills are About.com, Hubpages and Ezinearticles. I will say they are good in providing tips about daily living but should not be use in scholaristic works like textbooks, essays, theses and research papers.

Individual Website vs Large Website with different topics

Note however that a website does not necessarily have single domain name. We could also judge that a website is just one website if it has the same theme, general appearance and font used throughout the site. For example, About.com has several different topics under different subdomains. These subdomain have the similar layout and appearance so we could say that they are parts of one large website. On the other hand, Hyperphysics is a subdomain under the website of Georgia State University but these two have totally different appearance so we could consider them as two separate website. We could say that Hyperphysics is focused on Physics topic even if the other subdomains and web pages of Georgia State University website contains information about other topics.

Always check more than one reference

If you find certain information that is crucial to your research and you found it from just one website, check the internet if there's another credible website that mention the said crucial information. There are so many people starting-up websites to have some of their unbelievable (and usually illogical) claims known to the world. It's important that both references are credible and at least one of them has neutral point of view. It's also very much possible for someone with unbelievable claim to setup more than one website, or the unbelievable claim is actually taken as truth by a group of people, with each of them setting-up their own blogs.

Site the references with as much important information as possible

After gathering information and your references, it is also important to cite them properly in footnotes, in end notes, or whatever format your editors/professors preferred.

The thing about websites is that unlike books and scientific papers, it does not follow any specific format and can be structured in different ways. However, the following must always be included:

  • article or page title (if there are any)
  • website name/title (if there are any)
  • article author (if mentioned)
  • date accessed - this is very important because websites can go offline either temporarily or forever, or with the URL of the web page you used as reference having changed)
  • webpage address or URL - the information found in your browser's address bar, starting http://...

For some websites, such as those surrounded by frames and those that are made entirely of embedded technology such as Flash, Silverlight or Java, providing the URL is not enough because the URL remains the same regardless of which page or part of the website you access. For such websites, you might need to provide a little direction on how to access the location of that specific information that you used. Using HyperPhysics as example, you could say "Click Astrophyiscs » Solar System » Earth." in addition to providing the URL.

Conclusion

The internet is rich in information. It's far bigger than any library in the world and looking for specific information that you need is very easy thanks to search engines. However, researching using the net has similarities to a historian separating facts from fiction from the papyri of ancient scholars. If you have mastery of the discipline under which your research work falls, you will find it easy to filter-out useful information but if you consider your expertise as low- or mid-level, the best course of action is to focus on websites that are likely to contain factual and unbiased information.

Last updated on 02 May 2013. Tags: , , ,

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