When I was in high school in the late 90s, many of my teachers didn’t even let me use the internet as a source for my research papers. Imagine that? I couldn’t use the very technology devised to share research between universities to help me write my research paper. So, what technology did my teacher promote instead of the unlimited power of the greatest information conduit in the known universe? Three by five note card, that’s right kids. At one time note cards were a research staple. Since that experience I’ve gone on to use the internet everyday to solve most of my problems, and I’ve found no use for note cards, but thanks for trying Ms. Smith. My teachers weren’t just cruel technophobes; they were from the old school. They didn’t understand the internet. It frightened them; but despite that truth, they did have a point. The internet lowered the bar for publishing. Just about anyone can get a website and publish anything, regardless of factual accuracy or soundness of reason. Webmasters are not held to the same journalistic standards or conventions to which traditional writers and publishers are held. There is no gatekeeper, no content monitor, no one checking the facts and information; therefore, don’t believe everything that you read on the internet. We’ve advanced beyond the time when internet sources could be discredited as a whole solely based on their medium, but there is still an urgent need for quality control when selecting sources on the web to use for your research paper. Once you have chosen from the vast array of research paper topics available to you, you will need to gather resources. This article will tell you what to look for when evaluating the authority of a website. The following indicators do not prove quality but may signal it. Use your best discretion and always think critically.
1. Identify the Author: When someone puts their time into producing a quality piece of writing, that person will lovingly attach their name to the text. If an author did not attach their name to a piece of writing or used a ridiculous pen name, like “Captain Cheese,” you should be suspicious as to the reasons why. Of course, having an author does not prove that the information is credible, but it allows you to perform the next step.
2. Check the Author’s Credentials: When you are researching a topic, you should seek the opinions and ideas of experts and authorities. Sure my neighbor has a blog about raising children, but does that qualify them as an expert on child development? You should be looking for more substantial credentials: college degrees related to the topic, a body of research or other articles indicating specialty, and awards or praise from cohorts. Check the author’s “about” page or Google search the author’s name and see what results appear. Make a determination whether what you see qualifies the author as an authority on the subject. Referring to authorities will add credibility to your research papers.
3. Determine the Focus of the Site: Look at the site on which the information is posted. Is the site’s main focuses connected to the topic that you are researching, or are you reading an article on a site that is about everything? In other words, is the website you are evaluating a specialty website that is devoted to the subject you are researching, or is the website a content farm, where one can find information about anything and everything? Information from sites that are dedicated to the field may be more reliable than articles from mega-sites, where journalistic standards may be low.
4. Assess the Quality of the Writing: If the page contains numerous grammar, punctuation, or word choice errors, the information may not be authoritative. If there are numerous misspellings, if the tone of the writing is lackadaisical or excessively jokey, or if there are logical inconsistencies in the writing, it may not be authoritative. Good writing and researching takes a long time to create, and writers and researchers who do it well will take the time to remove the errors and polish the writing.
5. Check for Sources: A strong indicator of authority and credibility is the presence of citations in a text. If the author has taken the time to credit the sources that he or she has used, that means two things. One: the author is using research, not just meandering, speculating, or basing their statements on their isolated experiences. Two: the author understands and follows the academic tradition of crediting sources, meaning the author has been trained and the information in the text, if not authoritative, is at least supported.
There is no sure fire way to determine the reliability or authority of a web resource. Ultimately, it comes down to a subjective judgment about which all may not be in consensus. Nonetheless, websites and articles that meet four out of five of the above criteria will be much more reliable than websites or pages that meet none. I hope that in the course of your research, you will identify the charlatans