How to Evaluate Web Sites

How to Evaluate Web Sites


Let’s say you receive this text from your
class mate. How would you know it’s true. Would you take your friend’s word for it
and tell all your friends? Maybe you trust your friends, still, I bet you would check
with others or check the Brock web site before spreading the word. Or at least if you didn’t
and discovered your friend was wrong, next time you’d make sure you’d double checked.
This scenario is similar to what you find online. You always want to verify and refute
what you find because the reliability of the internet is dubious. Take this example, The
Onion. A quick Google search and you’ll find that it’s a news satire site. It’s
quite amusing, but it’s not trustable. So let’s use a systematic method for evaluating
information you’d find online. Here are five criteria I ask myself when looking at
web sites. Who created the site? What is the purpose? Is it accurate? Is the site current?
And, is it relevant? So, let’s do a search on “climate change and science.” This
is a hotly debated subject and when you’re not an expert it can be very challenging to
assess the arguments, if not impossible. We’ll start with this site here: Climate Change
Science and Research. Using the URL, or web address, can sometimes help our evaluation.
In this case, the Environment Canada web site, I know, is a government web site because the
.gc indicates “government of Canada” and the .ca indicates “Canada.” Although these
are not always used consistently, here are a few others: .gov for U.S. Government, .edu
for Education in the U.S., .com is commercial, and .org is organization. Let’s return to
our search results again and let’s take this example from Scientific American. Once
again, starting with the web address, I can see the .com tells me it’s a commercial
site and looking over the site what I want to find is a contact or “about us” page.
Scrolling down to the bottom there’s both. Starting with the “Contact Us” page, I
see it’s a magazine and looking around I can see contact information for those responsible
for the content. Going to the “About Scientific American” page provides information to help
us asses its overall credibility. However, this site only tells us how the magazine describes
itself and may be biased. So, let’s go back to Google and find out what others say about
Scientific American. Of course, Wikipedia. Sometimes its credibility is questionable,
but in this case we’re not looking to cite it in a paper and it does verify that Scientific
American is a credible, though popular, magazine, meaning not academic. So, do you use it, or
ditch it? Ultimately, it’s up to you. Just remember it’s a popular magazine and therefore
not an academic source. But wait, before you ditch it, read it. An article like this passes
our checklist. It’s frequently updated, we have determined it’s a credible source
and the specific is relevant to our topic. It provides an overview of a very complex
subject. You may not choose to use it in your paper or cite it in your bibliography, but
it will definitely be helpful in understanding the climate change arguments. So now let’s
take a look at one final example. Let’s take a look at this: Climate Change Science.
Going back to our checklist, I can see that the author is Ken Gregory, it was last updated
in 2011. If I click on the banner, it takes me to the Friends of Science web site which
is dedicated to refuting the science supporting the climate change argument. Finally, peel
back the web address to the .ca and it takes you to this web site. It’s a telecommunications
company and it’s likely that the Friends of Science is hosted by an Internet service
provider. Still, we need to find out more information. Let’s go back to Google and
do a search using “Ken Gregory.” From here we find this web site, Business Insider.
This article is a scathing analysis of the Friends of Science calling it “a rag bag
collection of un-peer reviewed web pages.” A little more searching and I find that the
Globe & Mail reports that the Friends of Science is supported by oil and gas companies. Our
check result has helped us navigate this web site and now has us questioning the accuracy,
purpose, and possible bias of the site. There is of course the possibility that your research
is requiring you to find sites that are questionable. Whatever the case, use our check list to help
you determine what you’re looking at. Which means, dig around the site and use other services
to verify or refute what you’re finding. If you’re unsure but want to use the site
anyway, inform your reader of your reasons to be suspicious or question the source. Evaluating
online information is not always easy and sometimes takes a little detective work. Always
remember to take the context of your assignment into consideration and keep the checklist
handy.

Author: Kevin Mason

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