Online Research 101: The Good, The Bad, and The UglyJun 30th, 2012 | By Jessica Parnell | Category: Featured Articles, Online Research
Types of Information
Information found online is in a state of constant flux – as new materials spring up every day and even more are edited and reposted. The types of data that can be discovered online are commonly: facts, opinions (either authoritative or just anyone’s), reasoned debates, statistical information or diagrams, narratives, eyewitness reports, or how-to descriptions. Unlike most traditional information sources (such as textbooks, print magazines, and organizational documents or manuals), there is no “internet official” to edit and approve the content before it is made public online.
Goals in Research
When your homeschooler is researching online, the very first step should be to have him decide exactly what type of information he is looking for. For instance, if your student is compiling a research paper on a medical condition, and if you are searching for both facts as well as expertly-argued opinions to support or challenge a position, you will want to search for factual background data from an authoritative medical site, as well as “eye-witness” experiences by surviving patients. When researching, remember to suspend your own personal opinion until after you have gathered all your necessary information.
So – with your goals in hand – how do you evaluate each source, and thereby weed out the good from the bad and the downright ugly?
There are several important steps to verifying that information is “good” or “reliable.” Unfortunately, there is no authoritative list of sites that will give you an immediate concrete answer. So you must look for several clues when investigating a website’s credibility.
Does the article list an author? According to Grace Fleming, a writer with About.com, “If the author is named, you will want to find his/her web page to verify educational credits, discover if the writer is published in a scholarly journal, or verify that the writer is employed by a research institution or university.” The better the author’s credentials, the better your information will be. And if the author provides contact information, it is another good sign that they are most likely legit.
Is the site linked to a reputable organization? Take a look at the site’s URL here – because you may find an excellent tip in the URL ending. If the site name ends with “.edu,” it is most likely an educational institution, and a very good source of reliable information and research reports. Even so, you should be aware of political bias, so read opinion pieces with that possibility in mind. If a site ends in “.gov,” it is most likely a government sponsored/owned website. Government sites are usually excellent sources for statistical information and objective reports. Although you may find the material quite dry, it often makes an excellent source to list in your own report bibliography.
Is the site linked to a media outlet or online journal? A reputable online magazine should contain a bibliography for all of its articles, and include an extensive compilation of scholarly, non-internet sources (hard print). Check for statistics and data within the article to back up the claims made by the author. Be sure to ask yourself, “Has the writer truly provided evidence to back up his or her statements?”
The difficulty in discovering “bad” or “disreputable” information often lies in the fact that the publishers of shaky information do not actually know that they are in fact, a bit shady. They may feel that they are experts in their field, or that their personal opinion is quite valuable, and correct, making it difficult to detect bogus information. How to weed out the bad, then?
Is the site politically motivated? Unless you are doing a paper on political science, it is best to steer clear of sites with a hidden (or unhidden) political agenda. When using “.org” sites – which are non-profit oriented – make sure to look for bias in information. A nature preserve that posts historical or scientific information about flora and fauna might be an excellent source, but an article posted on why greenhouse gases are going to cause mass extinction unless you donate to them today might not be so great.
Is it a personal website? Keep in mind that anyone can throw up a website these days – it’s actually quite easy. If you think about it, using materials from a personal web page is just like stopping a complete stranger on the street and asking them a question – then relying on the answer. Not very smart! However, opinions can be used to add depth to certain research papers (as long as you reference them as such).
Some websites can be just downright ugly as a source of information! Researcher beware…
Does the website ask you for personal information? Sly marketing tactics abound on the internet. If a website promises you tons of information, but wants you to give them your name, address, telephone number, and your first-born child before you can access a single thing, it’s likely a gimmick. The information on the other end of the tunnel MAY be reputable, but it’s likely not (or not worth the hassle of calls or endless spam).
Is the website a Wiki-site? Wiki web sites can start you off with a lot of great information, but they can also be unreliable. Wiki sites allow groups of people to add to and edit the information contained on the pages. So now – you can imagine how a Wiki page could contain untrustworthy information! However, a Wiki-site does offer a good overview of a topic to give you a strong foundation to begin working with. It also provides a list of resources where you can continue your own research.
Freedom of speech is a very important right for all of us, however, it now becomes YOUR job as a researcher to objectively evaluate the information that you discover online, in order to determine whether it suits your needs and is truly valid and reputable!
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