The internet has quickly become the world's preferred source of information. The quality of available information can vary greatly from site to site, however. Knowing how to spot reliable sources of information on the internet is a valuable and easily attainable skill. Whether searching for information for personal, academic, or professional reasons, seek out high-quality sources. By asking yourself appropriate questions about the information you're reading and the sources of that information, you'll be able to quickly distinguish the credible from the not so credible.
- Skill level:
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Consider the top-level domain (or "TLD") of a web address; this is the ending of a website address, such as .com and .net. Seek sources whose websites end in .edu or .gov; these are operated by colleges or universities and the government, respectively. Using .edu and .gov sources is preferred for academic and professional work, as these types of websites are considered to be the most reliable.
Finding quality information from websites with other TLDs is possible, but further research will often need to be done to determine whether those websites are credible.
Ascertain the source. Citing information from an author's official website is appropriate; using that same information when found on a fan's personal blog is not. Using government or educational resources will not always be possible or appropriate, but all online sources you use should be credible. Using sources that are editable by the general public, such as Wikipedia, yields information that is questionable.
Determine credibility by the look of the website, whether it represents an "official" source for whatever you're looking for, and who wrote the information. Look for an informational "About" page to let you know about the author or sponsoring organisation, and place less trust in websites without them. Bestow a higher level of trust on organisations and individuals who are experts in or directly involved with the focus of your research's, or those who are generally respected news sources such as The New York Times.
Find the publication date of the source material. Search online documents and publications for a date of publication or last update; these are often listed at the top or bottom of the page. Use the most up-to-date sources available; for time-sensitive information such as statistics, information tends to degrade rapidly.
Determine whether this website is the original source for the information provided, or if it's been reproduced or cited from another source. Scan for links or credits to other sources; if found, attempt to go straight to those sources. Finding second-hand information can be a helpful way to find your way to more appropriate source material.
Evaluate the intentions of the information. Determine the level of bias in the information's presentation; a personal account and a newspaper article about the same event may vary greatly. Ask yourself whether the information is presented in a factual or unbiased manner, or whether the originating source has a financial or other stake in the information.
Tips and warnings
- If you're collecting information for academic reasons and you're unsure about a source, consider asking your teacher or professor to evaluate your source. They'll be able to explain why a certain website isn't an acceptable source.
- Adding the search modifier site:.edu or site:.gov when using search engines to find information will return results that come only from those types of TLDs. Searching for information within a specific website can also be sped up using search modifiers, such as site:brown.edu or site:whitehouse.gov.
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