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Evaluating Websites

Note: The idea for this lesson comes from an article written by Alan November. His article is rather dated, however, so this is an update with working links and a more current approach.

Is The Web a Good Research Tool?

Actually, this is a somewhat difficult question to answer. Most students would almost certainly say “yes” if for no other reason than it’s easy and full of information. True, but how much of that information is reliable and credible? There isn’t any good data on that, but experience would suggest that it’s “not much.” As a result, teachers and college professors will often say you shouldn’t use the web at all – which seems rather unfair. In reality, the proper approach lies somewhere between blind faith in everything on the web and outright banning of all web content. We will, therefore, look at how we can properly and effectively find quality information online.

A look at the numbers

However, keep in mind that for any given web search probably no more than 10% of the hits will be reliable and credible and the number of those that are actually relevant to your topic will be significantly fewer. If your search returns 100 hits, only a few of them will be useful – but you will have to scan and evaluate all 100 to find the few gems. If your search returns 1,000,000 hits, well, good luck.

One Approach – RADCAB (has limitations)

RADCAB is a simple mnemonic device to help you remember the main steps in evaluating a web resource. It stands for:

R – Relevancy – is it really what you are looking for?
A – Appropriateness – is it aimed at high school or college level work or overly simple or too professional?
D – Detail – is there sufficient information to be useful or very brief or overly general?
C – Currency – how old is the information and how does that affect its relevancy?
A – Authorship – who is the author and what makes them an expert?
B – Bias – why was it written and is the article intended to persuade the reader using overly one-sided arguments or unfounded opinion?

Simply ask these questions (and honestly answer them) of any web resource you would like to use. When you are done, you will have a good idea whether or not the site and/or its information are reliable and credible and worthy of use in your research.

Limitations – These questions tend to focus on superficial elements of the source. While who wrote, their bias, etc. are important things to consider, we often cannot accurately answer these questions. As a result, we end up focusing on less important elements such as how current the information is or whether or not the website seems credible instead of critically evaluating the content of the information itself.

A Better Approach – Critical Literacy

Focus on the content of the information. What do you know about the topic and how does the information fit with what you know? Do you have doubts? Does anything about the information “feel” wrong? Trust your instincts. If you have doubts, try to find corroborating evidence or conflicting information and seek the truth.

  • Is the main idea clear?  How do you know?
  • What evidence is presented? (evidence can include facts, statistics, eyewitness accounts, personal experiences and quotes from experts)
  • Are the sources authoritative and reliable?  How do you know?
  • What is your opinion of the evidence?  Why?
  • What are the other sides of the story?

Time for a Real Life Example

A student searching for information on the Holocaust came across this page – http://www.codoh.com/revisionist/tr03butzhr.html (Because Google interprets links as evidence of credibility this site is not being linked. Please copy and paste the link to view.) This article initially appeared as a page on the Northwestern University web site and was written by Professor Arthur Butz. Given its location on a prominent university site and the fact it was written by a professor tends to lead us to believe it’s credible. After all, why would a big university publish inaccurate information?

Unfortunately for the web researcher, the task of evaluating a web site goes way beyond relying on the type of website or how reliable to author appears (people can lie about who they are). With respect to the above article consider a few important questions and see if you can answer them. Keep in mind that this was originally published on a university site.

  • Who is the author and what do you know about him?
  • What subject does he teach and what subject is he writing about?
  • What are his personal and professional affiliations (what organizations does he belong to)?
  • What do others say about him (Google his name)?
  • What site hosts his information and how/why is it hosted? (This is important for both the original university site, where it was a personal page, and the new site.)
  • Is the information objective or biased? Does the author have any motivation to persuade the reader?
  • Is the information presented well researched (citations? and are they credible?) or mostly opinion?

The above questions are only about the author, his motivation, and the quality of the information. If all that checks out, then we still need to be concerned with the appropriateness of the information, its relevancy to our topic, the level of detail and its usefulness to our topic, and whether or not the information is current and how old is too old (consider the importance of up-to-date information for research on stem cells vs. the American Civil War). In this case, the author is a university professor but not of history. Does being a professor make you expert in all fields? More importantly, the informations doesn’t mesh with what we know and there is a clear attempt to convince us of his position. These are hallmarks of biased information, but without actually reading and critically evaluating the CONTENT it’s not easy to see this and simply accepting his professor title as proof of authority would lead us down the wrong path.

Here is a short video to sum up.

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