Ask any old person (that is, anyone over the age of 40) about what it was like researching and evaluating sources 20+ years ago. They’ll tell you about a strange process of going to the library to read books, take notes, and make copies—all without using a single computer.
Another strange anomaly of researching in the dark ages? There was almost no need to evaluate sources because they were generally written and published by well-respected authors and outlets.
Not so today. Anyone can publish a website about anything, regardless of whether the information is true. (Think fake news.)
If you’ve decided to skip the visit to the library in favor of completing your research online, how do you know whether the information you’re reading is credible?
Let me provide a little insight on evaluating websites.
Evaluating Websites: What You Need to Know to Find Great Sources
Sure, it’s really quick to just use the first websites the pop up on your Google search, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be citing appropriate sources for your paper.
If you want to use better sources (and get a better grade on your essay), here are a few tips for evaluating websites.
Decide whether the website is CRAAP
The CRAAP test is a simple test that evaluates the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of a website.
Here’s a quick run-down of each component:
- Currency: The website should be updated regularly. If the site isn’t maintained, the information is likely outdated and not useful for your paper.
- Relevance: The information should be relevant to your research.
- Authority: The website’s content should be written by people with appropriate credentials, such as academic degrees or other related experience in the subject.
- Accuracy: The website should be accurate. This refers to content as well as spelling or grammar errors. (If writers can’t pay attention to grammar, they may not pay attention to the accuracy of their information.)
- Purpose: Think about the website’s purpose. If the site is a commercial website (.com), its purpose is to sell something. Thus, the language and content might be biased. Look for more reliable research-appropriate websites, such as .edu or .org sites instead, as these sites are designed to inform and educate rather than persuade.
Want to know more? Read How to Apply the CRAAP Test to Your Essay Sources.
Watch out for these 3 red flags
Let’s say you’re doing some research, and you come across a few websites that you know nothing about. How can you really know if the information is legit?
1. Look out for wording that just doesn’t sound right
Ever read something and think to yourself, “That can’t be true, can it?” If you’re asking this question, chances are you’re probably right. It’s not true.
Check out this website for a drug called Havidol.
When you first land on the homepage, it looks real…that is until you really start to think about the name of the drug: Havidol. Sounds a little too much like “have it all,” doesn’t it?
If you didn’t pay much attention to the drug name and simply cited information, you’d be citing fake content about a fake drug. This site is nothing more than a spoof website meant to look like a website for a real prescription drug.
2. Look out for satirical “news” websites
Satirical “news” websites aren’t trying to write fake news to get people to believe lies. They’re writing satire. The website’s content, though, is designed to look real, and the articles may fool people if they aren’t paying attention (or are a little bit gullible).
Take The Onion for example. This website is comprised entirely of satire, yet you might mistake some information for truth.
Here’s a sample headline: Cackling Trump Reveals to Dinner Guests They’ve All Just Eaten Single Piece of His Tax Returns. This brief article is just as the title suggests. It explains that dinner guests ate pieces of President Trump’s tax returns.
Clearly, this is a bogus article, but those not familiar with the fact the Trump refuses to release his taxes may not understand the humor in the article.
3. Look out for biased websites
While it’s virtually impossible to eliminate all bias, look out for websites that have an agenda and websites that only present one side of the story.
BeefNutrition.org is an example of a potentially biased website.
The entire focus of the website is the nutritional benefits of beef. While the information on the site may be accurate, it’s likely that the content only supports one side of the argument: that beef is healthy and should be consumed by most everyone.
Don’t just rely on the name of the organization alone, however, to determine potential bias. Take a look at the “about us” section. If you know something about the sponsoring organization, you’ll know more about the purpose of the site.
For instance, the “about us” section of Beef Nutrition reads as follows:
“BeefNutrition.org is funded by the Beef Checkoff Program and managed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, (a contractor to the Beef Checkoff). Registered dietitians and nutrition communication experts at NCBA work on behalf of America’s farmers and ranchers to provide the latest in beef research and resources to help you and your clients live better with lean beef.”
It’s clear from this description that the website is “pro beef” and is doing everything it can to promote beef consumption. This site isn’t likely to contain any potential negative information about beef.
The takeaway: Just because a source is a .org doesn’t mean it’s automatically an acceptable research source.
Now that you’re a pro at evaluating websites…
Where to Find Great Online Sources
With all this talk about what types of sources you shouldn’t use, there have to be at least a few good online sources, right? Of course!
Here are a few suggestions:
- Recent news: CNN, the NY Times, or NPR.
- Documentaries/educational programming: PBS, NatGeo, or Ted Talks.
- Scholarly sources: Read 5 Best Resources to Help With Writing a Research Paper.
You can also get more help with your research paper by reading these posts:
If, by chance, you’re reading this post because you need to write a paper about evaluating websites or other online information, you might want to read this example essay: Understanding Online Articles and Research Papers.
Not sure if you cited all your sources correctly? Let a Kibin editor check your essay (and your references).
Let the surfing (and researching) begin!