Because of the large variety of information sources available to you, it is often hard to tell if the information you are accessing is reliable or useful. Since you should never automatically accept the information you are retrieving as credible, accurate, or unbiased, how do you find the most trustworthy resources? You may not be a subject expert in the area you are researching, but there are a number of basic things to look for to help you evaluate the credibility of an information source.
After finding a source that is relevant to your topic, your detective work begins. Librarians and other experts pre-select materials available from the library. However, anyone can write and publish information; books are often self-published, newspapers publish opinions, magazines may reflect bias, or an interview you watch may not be from the most knowledgeable person on a subject. Websites in particular can be tricky to assess. The ease of posting material online makes it easier to find information, but not so easy to evaluate it.
The domain of a website gives important clues to its credibility. You can find the domain name, sometimes called the domain suffix, in the URL of the website – it’s the .com in amazon.com, and the .ca in brocku.ca. Domain names follow patterns established by domain name registering agencies, and you can use those patterns to discern clues about the purpose and geographic origin of a website.
Some domains are better sources for credible information. For example, websites containing .edu or .gov originate from accredited postsecondary educational institutions in the United States, or US government offices. As such, they are usually more credible than .com or .cc websites that may have a commercial focus.
A confusing domain is .org. This domain is available to non-profit and for-profit organizations. While non-profit implies the organization does not have a commercial interest, it still could have biased or inaccurate information to further their agenda.
In general, here are some domain guidelines you can use when viewing a website:
|? .org||? .com||? .cc||? .co|
|? .net||? .ca||? .us||? .biz|
There are five main evaluative criteria you can use when faced with a piece of information. An easy-to-remember acronym for these techniques is QUOTA. Ask yourself these questions for each criteria:
Author - What is the author's education and experience? Does it qualify them as an expert on this topic? Do they reference any research to support their points?
Company/Organization - Does the company or organization have a good reputation? What is the web domain (e.g. .com, .edu, etc.) of the site?
|Up-To-Date*||Is the information current? When was it last updated? For websites - are the links up-to-date and functioning?|
|Objectivity||Does the content focus on facts and information? Or, does it state an opinion? Does the source use neutral or strong language? Is there slant or bias present? Is the message trying to convince you of something? Are there advertisements included with the information?|
|True||Is the information correct and has been fact-checked? Are there additional sources or references to verify the information? Do other experts agree? Was this information from a first-hand experience?|
|Accurate||Does the content relate to your topic and answer your questions? Is it meant for children, experts, adults, or casual readers/viewers? Is it overly complex or not complex enough?|
*Up-To-Date is not always a consideration with web content. This is especially true with history, religion, philosophy, literature, and the humanities. An idea from a 1,000 years ago could still be valid in these areas.
Wikipedia describes itself as "a collaboratively edited, multilingual, free-access, free content Internet encyclopedia..." The collaborative nature of the site encourages users to submit and edit content. Critics of Wikipedia point out that some articles are incomplete, biased, unreliable, and inaccurate. However, Wikipedia does have mechanisms in place to raise the quality of articles including user reviews and flagging inappropriate or uncited content.
The answer to whether Wikipedia is credible or not is that it is both a credible and not credible source! To find the most credible information on Wikipedia, there are few things to pay attention to. A sign of a well-written Wikipedia article begins with in-line citations including attributions and reference tags. An example of an attribution is "According to Dr. Robert Fitzgerald of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center..." or "In the 2010 US Census report..." Reference tags are hyperlinked numbers that coincide with citations listed at the end of the article in the Reference section.
Screenshot of Wikipedia article with an attribution and inline reference tag.
"Wikipedia." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 July 2014. Web. 22 July 2014.