Assessing the credibility of online sources

by Philip Webb on 1 February 2004

As online technology rapidly develops, the criteria for evaluating these sources develops as well. Online sources are so new that their status as accurate sources is not fully established; therefore, you should verify online sources before you invest time in browsing the web or assessing the credibility of sources you find there.

Once you've determined that online sources can be used, you'll still need to assess their credibility. The following criteria for assessing online sources will help you to determine whether electronic sources are both professional and appropriate. Keep in mind as you review these criteria that many are based on standards used for traditional print sources; others are clearly relevant for electronic sources only.

Authorship

  • Is the author identifiable? Never use a source whose author you cannot identify.
  • Is the author a professional in the field?
  • If the author's name is unfamiliar, is the site linked to an established authority on the subject?
  • Has this author been referred to favourably by respected professionals in the field or by a respectable Web site? Does the document contain links to these professionals or to the respected Web sites? Are there also links from these sources that go back to the site you're assessing?
  • Does the author include his/her e-mail address or a mail-to: so that you can contact the author directly from the site?
  • Does the author include a way to contact him/her other than e-mail?
  • Does the Web site belong to an individual, or is it part of a site maintained by an organization, academic institution, or other group? Does it list the author's position within this group?

Publishing Body/Publisher

  • Is the type of material appropriate? Professional sources from the Web include professional home pages or online professional journals. Non-professional sources include personal home pages or online general audience magazines.
  • Is the site sponsored by a respected organization?
  • Does the site include an official insignia of the organization sponsoring it?
  • Are you able to contact the webmaster or sponsoring organization from within the site?

Currency

  • Can you identify the date created as well as date(s) revised?
  • Does the site include information on how often the site is updated?
  • Is a copyright date listed?
  • Is there evidence of what Martin Irvine calls ‘linkrot’? Linkrotted sites include links that no longer exist or have simply moved; this implies poor upkeep of the site.

Perspectives

  • Can you identify the goals of the site?
  • Are these goals clearly stated?
  • Does the focus of the text relate to the graphics in the site?
  • Is the perspective appropriate?
  • Are all sides of the issue fairly presented?

Coverage

  • Is there an in-depth understanding of the related issues that shows the author's familiarity with the subject?
  • Does the site include internal links that provide quick reference to the main sections of the document? Internal links show the author has given attention to the potential needs and questions a reader might have.
  • Does the site acknowledge other sources within the text itself? Are there also links to these sources if they exist online?
  • Are links provided to the sources that are available online?
  • Are the appropriate theories, schools of thought, or techniques used in the discussion of the material standard in the field?
  • If the material is based on a new theory, is coverage of the new approach detailed? Does the site cover the advantages and disadvantages of the method compared to other current methods in the field?

Accuracy or verifiability

  • Is the material comparable to related sources? The home page of an authority in the field will provide a good base of sources to use as a comparison for other sources.
  • Is the methodology given so that the author's work can be replicated or evaluated?
  • Does the source include a bibliography and/or citations that can be used for comparing or verifying data and other information?
  • Are there links from the citations or the bibliography to the original documents?
  • Is the information in the text poorly presented compared to the graphics?
  • Do many mechanical errors (e.g., grammatical errors, typos, etc.) appear in the text? Errors suggest the author might be careless in presenting information.
  • Did you discover the site via a search engine? If so, how does the search engine you used look for information and, if relevant, rate the sites it retrieves?

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