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August 2005

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Kyle Cushman

Internet Research Requires Healthy Skepticism

By Kyle Cushman, Vermont College of Union Institute and University

With millions of web pages instantly available on just about any topic, students working on research papers depend on the ubiquitous presence of the Internet for at least a portion of their research. For savvy researchers, the web can be a valuable research tool. However, students do not always take the time to evaluate whether the information they've just retrieved from their favorite search engine comes from a dubious source or a reputable source. Since anyone can have a web page, information posted as "fact" on the web does not always have the normal checks and balances of print material--there is often no editor or publisher to verify research or edit these pages. In addition, there are a wide variety of purposes for web pages including persuasion of an opinion or selling products/ ideas.

Coaching students to become educated consumers of Internet information is an important task for faculty and learning support personnel alike. To develop an effective evaluation process for Internet resources, students may want to consider the following:

Whose page is it?

Is this page hosted by an individual or an organization?
If the page is hosted by an individual, try to determine if his or her page is:

  • a personal page just for fun
  • posted for business purposes
  • actually representing some kind of organization or group

If the page is hosted by an organization, try to determine if the organization is:

  • corporate (URL address usually ends with ".com")
  • non-profit (usually ".org")
  • educational (usually ".edu")
  • government-affiliated (usually ".gov")

What is the author's expertise, credentials and qualifications to be writing on this topic?
Has the contact information for the author been provided?
What kind of biases does the author appear to have?

The point here is for students to recognize that the host of a web page is a real person with certain biases and a specific intent which will affect the content of the writing.

What is the purpose of this page?

Why has this page been posted?

  • to inform?
  • to persuade?
  • to sell?
  • to share/disclose?
  • to explain?

Who is the author's target audience? Is it:

  • students?
  • business professionals?
  • consumers?
  • average adults?
  • kids?
  • experts in a scholarly field?
  • activists or politicians?

The author's purpose in posting the page will affect the quality of information presented. An activist persuading the reader to believe a certain opinion will provide a different kind of information than a scientist who is presenting research to other experts in his/her field.

What is the quality of this web page?

How well is the page written? Is the writing:

  • fluent?
  • well organized?
  • clear?
  • confident?
  • complete?
  • grammatically correct?

Are other viewpoints represented?
Are opinions backed up with relevant facts and research?
Does the author use primary sources (observation, letters, journal entries, research results) or second-hand evidence (books, magazines, newspapers)?
How accurate and error-free is this information?
Is it possible to verify the facts from this page?
Are the sources cited properly?
Did this page have an editor or publisher to check facts?
How current is the information? What is the copyright date?
Are the links current and to reputable web sites?

The quality of a web page can provide a student with quite a bit of information. If the page is not well-written and is full of spelling and grammatical errors, that could be an indicator of poor scholarship. If the author doesn't back up opinions with evidence or consider other viewpoints, an accurate picture of the topic is not being presented.

By modeling these kinds of questions and providing a quality hand-out on evaluating Internet sources, learning center coaches can help students who are writing research papers to develop the healthy habit of skepticism and to know a quality web page when they see it.

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