Evaluating Web sites for academic use

It's tempting to accept information from the Web without evaluating its credibility because Web sites can look impressive, but remember that anyone with a PC and a server can put information on the Web. Before citing a Web resource in a paper, you need to be critical and evaluate it carefully. Ask yourself these questions:

Who is the author?

You need to consider who the author is and what his or her credentials are. Does the author have expertise in the subject? Also consider what the author's affiliation is or who is sponsoring the site. If, for example, you find a paper on AIDS in Africa written by an undergraduate for a course assignment, its value as a research document would be much less than an article on AIDS from the Web site of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control).

If you can't find an author's name, try to find a link to a homepage for the site or "backtrace" the URL (remove portions of the URL starting at the right and stopping at a backslash). Be wary of using sites without a personal or institutional author.

How accurate is the information presented?

Consider the accuracy of the information. Does the information make sense? Is it supported with a list of footnotes / bibliography? No matter the source of the Web site, you must be able to verify its contents if you plan to cite the information.

A good Web site will also be free of grammatical, spelling, and typographical errors and will provide links only to other quality Web sites.

Why does this page exist?

You need to be able to identify the site's purpose and determine the author's point of view. How does the point of view affect the information being presented (or omitted)? Also consider the host or sponsor of the site. If, for example, a Web site which discusses body image belongs to a pharmaceutical company that manufactures diet pills, compare the information with another source without commercial interest in the topic.

Be alert to any advertising on the page and use only sites where the advertising is clearly delineated from the content of the site.

When was the Web site first created? When was it last revised?

Locate dates both for a site's creation and last revision, if possible. Broken links are usually indications of the site not being up-to-date. Currency is not measured the same way in all cases, but practices and ideas change over time in every field of scholarship. Whether the site contains historical information, technical specifications, or legislative discussions, you need to place the facts or analysis in a time frame.

Is the Web site an online version of a print source?

If the Web site has a print counterpart that's been published as a book or article, it can be a good indication that the information has gone through some sort of editorial review process and that the site is a reliable source of information.

How substantive is the Web site?

Be sure that the information is detailed enough or complete enough to warrant use for research. Ask yourself if the site adds new information to what you already know, if it left out something significant, or if you are using it just because it's convenient. Remember that your professor will be looking closely at your list of sources: If you were your professor, would you consider this a valid resource?