Before you can evaluate a source, you need to find one. One of the best places to start that search is the library. KU Libraries has some excellent tutorials on how to operate the online databases, search the book catalog, and use their varied resources.
Databases are a great place to start for online research! You can simply type your topic or focus into the search engine and find information related to it. However, the most effective way to use a database is through an Advanced Search. The Advanced Search button is often above the search bar of a database or in a menu for search options. Through Advanced Searching, you can narrow down your results based on the type of source you want (article, book, report, thesis), the year a source was published, the general subject of the source (Biology, History, Linguistics, Economics, Agriculture), or many other things, depending on the database.
Evaluating Any Source
There are a variety of sources that you can use to enhance your argument or help in your research. However, not all sources are created with the same intention. Keeping in mind these questions will help in your evaluation of whether a source works for your project or not.
- Purpose - What is the purpose of the source? Why was it created? Who is the intended audience? Does this source seem like it is giving objective information or is it more persuasive? Would your research or argument benefit from a more objective or a more persuasive source?
- Credibility – Does the author(s) of your source have credentials in the field they are writing in? Is the publisher of your source well-known or well-respected? Is the source professionally and clearly laid out? Does the source offer only common knowledge on the subject, or does it offer something deeper? What sources (if any) does the author cite? Are those sources credible?
- Currency – Is your source current? When was the most recent update or edition? How important is it to your argument or research that your source is the most up to date? If it needs to be current, how current does it need to be. Can it be a few years old or only a few months old?
- Accuracy – Is the information the source is giving accurate (to your knowledge)? If it seems like the source is getting information from another source, is that cited and documented? Does the source cover the topic in the amount of depth your argument or research requires? Is this source focused on one central topic, or is it more scattered with its focus? Is there a clear argument being made, and is that argument clearly supported by evidence?
As more and more research is found on the internet, it is important to approach sources critically. How do you know if a site is useful, reliable, and provides valuable information?
When working with web-based sources, there is a lot to consider. The questions above are still relevant, and can help in evaluating the content, but there are some specific steps that are useful for just websites. Luckily, a lot of information about a page’s credibility can be found in places that might not seem obvious but are easily accessible.
The first, and quickest, way to judge a website’s credibility is to look at the URL of the site you are on. It should be at the top of the screen or under the title of the page on a search engine. Some common things you might see are “.com”, “.gov”, or “.org”. These are called domain suffixes and they tell you about the company or person who runs the website. Some common domain suffixes include:
- .com – commercial use, most common domain suffix
- .net – network use, another common domain suffix
- .org – organizational use, frequently used by non-profit organizations
- .gov – government use, information is coming from some level of government
- .edu – educational use, information is coming from a learning institution, like a college or university
If a URL ends in .gov or .edu, it is generally safe to assume that the site has some level of credibility, as governments and learning institutions hire people who can provide credible information.
However, you should always look for another way to prove your source is credible. Here is a list of other points of credibility you might look for and where on the website you might find them:
- Publisher – Who published this website? Is it a well-known organization or person? Does the publisher have anything to gain from the information being told? Are there ways to contact the publisher, and is that information up to date? The publisher of a website is generally the organization that created the website, and therefore can be likely be found in the header or top of the website.
- Author - Is there information about who wrote or contributed to the webpage? Or who to contact if you have questions about the material presented? Does the person/people responsible have credibility: Are they an expert on the topic? Do they have credentials like a PhD or degree on the topic? Are there any editors listed that might have fact-checked the information? Since anyone can post something online, it’s even more important to evaluate the author in these situations. This information is often listed with the title of the page, at the very bottom of the page, or under an ‘About’ section, which could be linked on a homepage or in a collapsible list.
- Updated Copyright – Is the copyright the year that you are currently in? If not, is it a recent year? How important for your project is it that this information is current? Generally, the copyright information is at the bottom of the webpage.
- Active Links – Does the website have any link to outside websites or other pages on the website? If you click those links, do they take you to pages that still exist and have the information it claimed to have? If they link to outside websites, are those websites also reputable? Things that are hyperlinked generally have some sort of underlining under the words that, when clicked, lead you to a new page. Active links help to tell if the page is still being maintained.
The links gathered here can help give you more information on evaluating online sources:
- Evaluating Internet Resources (Georgetown University Library)
- Evaluating Digital Sources (Purdue OWL)
Updated July 2022