The reality of looking for "the answer"
There are two steps to finding the information you need. The first is to find information. The second is to evaluate whether that information is what you want.
It is usually easier to find any information than to find the information that you want. The information that you want has to be both reliable and relevant. Only those who need the information can determine whether the information is relevant. The cost of pencils is relevant if you are buying pencils, but not if you are looking for the capital of Australia. Luckily, the skills used to determine whether information is reliable are more universal. These skills can be used with slight modifications for information searches whether you are looking for information for a school paper, buying a car, deciding which allergy medication to use, or whether to see a specific movie.
Evaluating the reliability of informationWhat information can you find about the author?
- Is the name of the person or organization included? If not you should continue looking for other resources.
- Who is the person or organization? Do they have the background, education, or expertise in the subject? Having a PhD in history does not make one an expert on medical care.
- What is the purpose of the website or article? Is it to sell a product or service? Is it to promote a specific political or religious belief?
- Does the person or organization have any biases? Are they talking about a competitor?
- Does the person or organization try to include both (or multiple) "sides"? Do they address criticisms or opposing arguments?
- Is there contact information? If it is for an organization or anyone selling something, is there a physical address and phone number listed?
- Did someone who has knowledge of the subject recommend the person or organization? Can you find an expert on the subject and ask them whether they consider the person or organization reliable?
- Is the writing style appropriate for the intended audience? What level is the vocabulary? Are there spelling and grammar errors?
- Has the person included the appropriate citations and/or credits? Do they acknowledge the source of information that they did not gather themselves?
- If they did gather information themselves, how did they do so? Is there information about any surveys, polls, or other information gathering techniques used? Do they include a copy of a sample survey?
- Do they include links to other websites or sources? Do they include links to websites or sources that provide a different perspective?
- Do you have knowledge of the organization or person offline? If so, what is the reputation of the organization offline? The website for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is as reliable as their television news.
- Does the organization or person have a bias? Do they have a reason for excluding certain information? A official company website is unlikely to state that people have been complaining about their product.
- Has the website been recommended by experts in the subject? Are there awards listed on the website? Are there references to having been included in respectable publications? Software companies that have been featured favorably in PC World often include that information on their website.
- Does the URL make sense of the website? An organization or frequently visited website will virtually always have its own domain. In most cases you should avoid freely hosted websites unless you are specifically looking for personal websites or fan websites. The domain name should also make sense for the organization. The official website for The American Film Institute is http://www.afi.com. The official website for the University of California, Los Angeles is http://www.ucla.edu.
- What is the selection criteria? Is there an editing or review process for articles or information? Is it peer-reviewed?
- Does the website look professional? Does it look like it was designed for the purpose of the website? Reliable organizations virtually always have professional web designers.
- Exceptions: Sometimes small businesses and small libraries do not have the money to hire a professional web designer or the time and resources to train one of their staff. Also, many professors with limited web design skills have a website hosted on their school's domain. In these cases you should focus on other methods for determining its reliability.
- How often is the website updated? Is there a date listed for the most recent update?
- How long as the website existed? While new websites are not necessarily unreliable and every website was new at one time you can often have more confidence that an established website will remain available.
- How many times, if any, has the website or page changed URLs? Will the page you found be available in a week? In a month?
- Is a search function, site map, or directory provided? Is the website easy to navigate?
- If the website asks for any personal information what security is provided for your personal information? Will it be sent over a secure connection? Where is it stored? What has the person or organization done to protect your personal information?
Always do a reality check
No resource is guaranteed to always be 100% accurate. People make mistakes (typos, etc). There have been occasions when a journalist or other source of information has intentionally misled others. In other cases information becomes outdated or, particularly in the sciences, experts find new information that reveals that their older theory was inaccurate. Thus, it is important that users do a reality check. If the information does not look right it is important to verify it in another source. The capital of France is Paris and it will not become Venice because a source, no matter how usually reliable, claims that the capital is Venice.
About these evaluation suggestions
I have seen numerous articles and websites about evaluating information. As they have slight differences, I recommend looking at multiple ones. It is particularly helpful if you can find one focused on your subject area.
The evaluation tips listed above are focused on websites. However they can be adapted to apply to print material. Please remember that evaluating print material is as important as evaluating material on the internet.
The evaluation tips are intended as a guide. If you are looking for information for a school assignment, job, or another person you should follow the instructions of the person who asked you to find the information and direct any questions to them. While evaluation is always important, some parts of this guide are less relevant when you are looking at personal websites or fansites for personal enjoyment.
When in doubt, ask a librarian. Many libraries have online help either using e-mail or chat. Check your library website. You can also go to the library. While there is a lot of information online sometimes the best sources are in a physical library.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Current English Language, Third Edition defines reliable as, "able to be relied on", an unhelpful definition for our purposes, and reliance as "dependence on or trust in someone or something" (p. 761). For the purpose of this page and the pathfinders, reliable is defined as, "a reasonable assumption that one can have confidence in the information".
Links to other websites with help in evaluating information
UCLA College Library: Thinking Critically about WWW Resources
This page focuses on resources on the internet. UCLA also has a page for subject specific resources here.
The WWW Virtual Library: Evaluating Information
If you need additional information about evaluating material this directory includes links to resources about both general evaluation of material and evaluating specific material.
Soanes, C. (Ed). (2001) The Oxford Dictionary of the Current English Language, 3rd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.