Research Guide: How Do I Trust Information That I Found Online?

When you use a book from a library, it has been through many stages to insure accuracy: publisher, editor, reviewer, selection by librarian.

  • The Publisher — Is it good enough to publish?
    If yes, send it to….
  • The Editor
    How can we make it better? Are there errors? After much work, send it to…
  • The Reviewer — Thumbs up! Thumbs down!
    Who reads the reviews?….
  • The Librarian — Will this be good for Holy Cross students?
    If I can only buy the best 500 books a year, is this one worth it?

When you use a website, it is possible that no one has ever reviewed the information for accuracy. Remember: Anyone can put anything up on the web: fake facts, hateful speech, unintentional errors. There is no one governing body that checks online information.

You need to ask these questions:

Does it fit with what I already know?

Use your common sense. Christopher Columbus didn’t provide laptops to Native Americans — but one website says he did!

Does it refer to other sources?

Look for links and references that you can check out.

Is the author an expert in the field?

The website of the American Lung Association is going to be a better source for your report than Joe’s “How I Cured My Asthma in 30 Days by Drinking Papaya Juice” website.

Is it dated? Is there a contact person?

Timeliness and authorship matter.

Why is someone giving this information away for free?

Many websites exist primarily to sell you something. Advertisers get paid for the number of “eyeballs” that the site gets.

Are spelling and grammar correct?

I found a factually accurate site about Women in Ancient Greece — only the occasional misspelled words gave it away, that its author was “Heather, age 9.” Heather did a nice job, but she is not a valid source for your research project.

Reliability Checklist

Here’s a checklist to help make sure a web site is a source of valid, reliable information. If a website does not fit into these categories, check with a librarian or teacher before including it in your bibliography:

  • It came from a subscription database, where the content has been reviewed, such as an online encyclopedia, ProQuest, netTrekker.
  • It came from a site with a .gov domain, such as the Department of State, the CDC, the Census Bureau, the Library of Congress.
  • It came from a site that is authored by a reputable organization, such as the National Geographic Society, Emory University, the Atlanta History Center, American Lung Association, PBS.
  • It is a primary document–a document that has not been interpreted — such as copies of the letters of U.S. Grant; the log of Columbus; the U.S. Constitution; a speech by Martin Luther King; diaries, receipts, and other original papers.

And — What About Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is an amazingly efficient and useful tool. It is an invaluable resource and students should understand how it works; in fact, they should contribute to it if they have knowledge to share. One study shows more factual errors in The New Enyclopedia Britannica than in Wikipedia. It is worth reviewing Wikipedia’s own advice:

Because Wikipedia is an ongoing work to which, in principle, anybody can contribute, it differs from a paper-based reference source in important ways. In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles more frequently contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic content, or vandalism. Users need to be aware of this to obtain valid information and avoid misinformation that has been recently added and not yet removed (see Researching with Wikipedia for more details). However, unlike a paper reference source, Wikipedia is continually updated, with the creation or updating of articles on topical events within seconds, minutes, or hours, rather than months or years for printed encyclopedias.Given the dynamic nature of Wikipedia, however, it should not be used as the only source when doing research.

Often a Wikipedia article is factually correct but the tenor, shape or perspective of the article is biased. For example, businesses monitor their sites closely to make sure they are portrayed in the best possible light; research on the Exxon Valdiz oil spill confirms it. One interesting search showed that thousands of edits came from Senate and congressional offices — our politicians watch their Wikipedia entries closely and shape them to present themselves in the best possible light.