The Web is a wonder, but as writer Elizabeth Moon said years and years ago,
At present, the "Net plus human" combination is much more like the situation of a reader who has inherited all the books in several storage units owned by a scholar, a libertine, and a harebrained enthusiast with no ability to test his hypotheses. It is, for many of us, an expanded library, but with all the problems of piles of unsorted books and magazines -- if you don't already know how to fact-check, you're going to be led astray.
The years that have since passed haven't improved matters.
I've written about dubious factoids and screwball myths on the Web and shared "the truth" about eggplant and Marilyn Monroe's toes. A valid question is "What makes this source Sal's referencing more credible than this other one I've found?"
The usefulness, accuracy and objectivity found on a Web site or other online resource may be anywhere along the spectrum from "infallible" to so dubious you wouldn't trust the word "the." When researching or just surfing the Web, how do you determine the accuracy and objectivity of a given Web site, keeping Elizabeth Moon's statement in mind? What sort of evaluation criteria should you use?
First ask what is the purpose behind the website? Is it someone's hobby, passion, or axe-grinding forum? Does the Webmaster or organization offer the site as a public service? Is the site educational, government or personal? Is the site trying to sell you something?
Is the site a "fun" site, an academic site, a place where crazy Uncle Eddie posts his political rants? Can you easily determine the site's purpose? The Web has always had generous people who freely offer expertise, and some personal sites contain incredibly useful information. However, Crazy Uncle Eddie, alas, also has a website. How can you tell the difference?
.ORG Or Tripod?
Is the site a .edu site or is it a GeoCities site? Although not an incontrovertible test, the .edu and .gov sites are usually far better resources than GeoCities sites. Far better to get your cancer facts from the National Institutes of Health than from a blog on livejournal.com. Remember, though, that GeoCities sites and other ad-supported sites can provide excellent, accurate information, a .org site may be a personal crank site, and even .edu sites can have dubious information. Is the educational site a student's page or does it belong to faculty? Is the faculty member's specialty the subject you're researching?
Who sponsors the site -- the American Medical Association, New York Times, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Soldier of Fortune or www.insignificantthoughts.com?
Read site content as you would ink-splattered pages, checking for biases and slants. Is there a bias you need to compensate for? People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would need a different bias compensation, for example, than the Republican National Committee, but both have obvious biases.
Want information on Russia? Encyclopedia sites and the CIA World Factbook are better resources than A GALLERY OF THE HOTTEST RUSSIAN BABES at GeoCities, but even the CIA World Factbook isn't completely error free.
Boogie over to the site's main page and see what you can unearth about the site's author. Does the author identify himself? Are credentials and/or affiliations mentioned? Do the credentials and affiliations add credibility? Does the author offer a contact e-mail address? I downgrade the credibility of sites whose authors are anonymous and/or can't be reached unless the site is owned by a known organization who vouches for its veracity. Remember, though, the biases and slants factors mentioned above.
Are the author's credentials related to the information on the site? If the author is tenured faculty in early Medieval English, does that give him a bye if he's spouting off about global warming?
Wikipedia? Wikipedia is a great resource, but it's not the be-all and end-all source of truth. The folks at Library Journal say, "Beware the "Anticredentialist" Wikipedia."
How long has the site been around? Sites with longevity are usually more reliable sources of information than a site thrown out on the Web last week by someone who thought, "Hey. Let's make a website!"
When was the site last updated? If the pages aren't visibly dated, many times I can find out when the page was last modified with just a right-click on the page with Netscape or Firefox and "View Page Info." . If the site information hasn't been updated since 1997, is there more recent information elsewhere you could use instead?
Does the site link to other sites with additional information? What sort of sites? Are the links up to date?
I pretty much write off information available at writing sites that link to Inkspot.com, which shut down in February 2001. Does the Web author annotate the links and/or spend some time evaluating and/or sorting the links into some useful whole before adding them to the site or is the presentaton higgledy-piggledy?
Who links back? The Google search engine allows you to search for who is linking to a given site. Use link:webaddress in the search field (e.g. link: www.internet-resources.com).
Did you find this site using one of the growing number of sites that vet other websites? Here are a few of my favorites.
The Internet Public Library at the School of Information, University of Michigan, has a large collection of links, sorted by subject. The site also has a collection of frequently asked reference questions: What are the best-selling books of all time? How much is my 1983 Ford Fiesta worth now? Why is New York City called "The Big Apple?" What were the names of everyone on the Mayflower?
IPL offers search tools and reading materials. Browse the IPL guide to 20,000 online books by author, title and Dewey category. IPL sites rank high on my trustworthiness scale because IPL vets each site before adding it to the "library."
Infomine: scholarly internet resource collections is a collection of over 100,000 resources chosen by librarians from the University of California, California State Universities and Colleges, Wake Forest University (NC), The University of Detroit-Mercy, and other universities and colleges. The collection consists of databases, books, mailing lists, articles, etc.
The Librarians' Index to the Internet (LII) is sponsored by the Library of California and primarily funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the LTSA. The Index is a trustworthy stash of links to more than 20,000 Internet resources and useful sites. LII has a full-time director, six staffers and more than one hundred volunteer California librarians selecting, annotating and indexing the link collection.
Whom Can You Trust?
I can't assure you that a given source is absolutely accurate -- not even online newspaper and magazine archives.
Journalism circles are clucking about the problems found in online newspaper archives. Did the person really say that? Was the quote corrected in a later edition, but the online archive left untouched? Did the wire service burp and a "setting the record straight" correction to the energy bar recipe make it into the paper three days down the road but never reach the online record? Was the article inaccurate to begin with and never corrected?
Information on the Web, like information everywhere, needs to be checked, vetted and reconfirmed.
Trust me on this, though, a tooth left in a glass of Coca-Cola will not dissolve overnight, German chocolate cake is an American creation, and North Dakota raises more sunflowers than any other state.
About the Author
Sal Towse spends her waking hours writing, surfing the Net (research!), and loitering in Usenet newsgroups when she isn't sitting crosslegged on the deck watching events unfold from her perch above the San Francisco Bay, exploring the nooks and crannies of the City or curled up with a good book. You can find her at http://www.towse.com.
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A version of this article was originally published April 2003in Computer Bits
Links checked September 2006. This page was last updated on 08-Sep-2006.