The Internet's greatest strength -- that anyone with a computer and a modem can make their voice heard on virtually any subject -- is also its greatest weakness.
Information flows freely into cyberspace from a great variety of sources, often without regard for traditional standards of fairness or accuracy. What you see is what you get on the Web -- and much of what you get is of dubious value.
Many sites contain unacknowledged biases, unqualified opinions, inaccuracies, and other quality control problems. There are no fact checkers on the Web, so the burden of determining whether information is valid, reliable, and useful falls exclusively on the researcher.
How can you separate fact from fiction?
Corporate librarian Lisa Guedea Carreño, of Highsmith Inc. (profiled in the Inc. cover story "The Smartest Little Company in America," January 1999), offers some clearheaded ways for evaluating information obtained on the Internet. Her simple checklist of questions is designed to prompt a searcher to think critically about the information on the screen.
Carreño says if you cannot answer most or all of these questions, then the information found at a site may not be reliable. She suggests that a researcher should then turn to other credible sources -- including books, journals, magazines, and CD-ROMs -- where the sources of information are often more clearly spelled out.
Do You Know the Bias of What You're Reading Online? -- A Checklist for Evaluating Web-Based Resources
If you can't answer most or all of these questions about a Web site, then beware!
____What is the purpose or motivation for the site -- to educate, advertise, persuade, sell, exchange opinions, other?
____Is the purpose stated?
____Are there advertisements on the site?
____If so, are they clearly differentiated from factual information or other content?
____Who is the author, owner, or sponsor of the site? This should be stated clearly at the site, along with an address and telephone number where they can be reached. An e-mail address alone does not guarantee legitimacy.
____What is the authority of this person or organization?
____Is the person or organization recognized as an expert or known for providing information in this field?
____Is the content accurate and objective?
____Can it be verified by other sources?
____If the information is based on opinion only, is this bias acknowledged?
____Are the links on the Web site relevant, reliable, and current (do they work when you click on them)?
____Is the site content current?
____How often is the site updated?
____When was this specific page last revised?
____What is the scope of the information? It should be stated at the site.
____Who is the intended audience for the site? This too should be clearly stated at the site.
____Is the information grammatically and typographically accurate? Spelling, grammar, and typographical errors indicate a lack of quality control and can result in further inaccuracies when using the information.
Additional Resources Corporate librarian Lisa Guedea Carreño drew on a variety of online sources in developing the above guidelines -- which are used by her company, Highsmith Inc. -- to evaluate information found on the Web. Guedea Carreño suggests those wishing to delve more deeply into the subject read:
http://www.tiac.net/users/hope/findqual.html Evaluating Quality on the Net By Hope N. Tillman A scholarly, in-depth discussion of the problem, including links to relevant examples that illustrate the challenges faced by researchers who use the Web. Includes a good explanation of how to use various search engines and guides to hunt down information.
Evaluating Web Resources By Jan Alexander and Marsha Tate, Wolfgram Memorial Library, Widener University Suggested checklists for evaluating different types of online resources from personal home pages to news, marketing, advocacy, and informational Web sites.
Evaluating Information Found on the Internet By Elizabeth E. Kirk, Milton's Web, Milton S. Eisenhower Library, Johns Hopkins University Presents the basic criteria for evaluating all forms of information as well as links to helpful documents that deal specifically with the Internet.