Internet resources

A great deal of the information on internet and especially www resources, is posted to the world everyday but the quality and trustworthiness is very varying. You should realize that:

  • Anyone can put something on the internet - for almost any purpose
  • They can say anything they like - be it true or false
  • And leave it there as long as they like - without ever updating it
  • Or change it without warning - perhaps even remove it completely

Unlike professional journals and commercial publishers who have a system of editorial review and external referees to ensure the quality, information can be spread over the internet by anyone without regard to accuracy, validity or bias.
Due to its global structure it is unlikely that any individual or nation will be able to influence this process.
The Internet needs to be free like that and if you want to use information from the web for serious research, you need to cultivate the habit of healthy skepticism, of questioning everything you find with critical thinking.

Information in scientific books, reports and journals has been through a process of selection and quality control.
First a publisher, be it a commercial publishing house, a university or research institute, decided it was good enough to publish.
Second, a librarian thought it was good and relevant enough to select for the (digital) library. In this selection process, the reputation of the publisher is taken into account.

More and more of the materials available in academic libraries are also available on the Internet. Many scientific reports and journals are published online, although access to them is not always free.But in general on the Internet no quality checks are required - anyone can publish anything they like! It is a mix of trash and treasure.

It's important to learn to judge the quality and trustworthiness of information you find on the Internet. Author Nicholas Carr talks about how the Internet is affecting our brains, from our creativity to our ability to learn, in this animation by Epipheo. Carr provides much more information on the subject in his book: The Shallows; What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (available from ITC Library)

Further "reading": How Google works

A quote about Google Scholar:

“How to game Google Scholar”

I've heard back from a few people now who contacted Google about the issue of indexing creationist sites in Google Scholar; these are informal remarks from the team, not an official policy statement, but they're still interesting. And revealing. And useful. They'll change your perspective on Google Scholar.

The premise of the petition to Google to stop serving up creationist claptrap is a misconception. Google Scholar does not index on content; it can't, it's just a dumb machine sorting text. Google Scholar does not, and this is the surprise to me, index on the source — it makes no decision based on whether it's an article from Nature or from a kindergarten Sunday School class fieldtrip. There's nothing they can easily tweak to exclude garbage from one source and include jewels from another: the internet is one big garbage heap to Google, and they'll dig for you, but it's your job to sort gems from trash.

The way items get on Google Scholar is based entirely on whether they're formatted like a scholarly paper. They aren't sharing the details, but it has to be fairly general stuff, like having a title and author and not being surround by advertising bric-a-brac, or whatever. Any ol' nonsense will do, since they don't evaluate content, and any ol' author will also do, since they don't care if it's being published by the university or the insane asylum, just make it look sort of like a serious paper, and it will show up.

And now you know how Answers in Genesis can find their twaddle on Google Scholar. If there's anything they're good at, it's pretending to be scientific, going through the motions while demolishing the substance. This is good information to have, actually, and you should pass it on to your students, and take it into account when using the service.

There are 5 criteria that are used to judge the quality of the Internet resources.

In the next pages we will explain these 5 criteria:

  • Accuracy

    Almost anyone can publish on the web and many web resources are not verified by editors. So ask yourself the following questions:

    • are the sources for the factual information clearly listed so they can be verified in another source?
    • is the information free of grammatical, spelling and other typographical errors? (no quality control)
    • is it clear who has the ultimate responsibility for the accuracy of the content?
    • are the charts or graphs with statistical data clearly labeled and easy to read?
  • Authorship

    If there is an author’s name, his/her qualifications are frequently absent and a publishers’ responsibility is often not indicated.
    So ask yourself the following questions:

    • Is it clear who is sponsoring the page and is there a link of this sponsoring organization?
    • Is it clear who wrote the material?
    • Are the author's qualifications for writing on this topic clearly stated?
    • If the material is protected by copyright: Is the name of the copyright holder given?
  • Objectivity

    Goals or aims of persons or groups are often not clearly stated.
    So ask yourself the following questions:

    • Is the information provided as a public service?
    • Is the information free of advertising?
    • If there is advertising: Is it clearly differentiated from the informational content?
  • Currency

    When was the information on the page originally written? When was it last revised? Are there any broken links on the page? Is there any information that is clearly outdated?

    Don't trust today's date: on many sites this is generated by a script so the page seems current but isn't.
    So ask yourself the following questions:

    • Are the dates on the pages to indicate when the page was written or when the page was first placed on the internet or when the page was last revised?
    • Are there any other indications that the material is kept current?
    • If material is presented in graphs or charts: Is it clearly stated when the data was gathered?
    • If the information is published in different editions: Is it clearly labeled what edition the page is from?
  • Coverage

    The first thing you should ask yourself is whether the information in the web document is relevant to your research topic.
    For this, you can use the same criteria as for books and journal articles from the library.

    Does it cover (part of) your subject? Is the intended audience scholarly, professional or general? Is the information basic, fundamental or applied, is the scope broad and general or narrow and specific?

    It is only after you have decided that the contents of the document seem to be relevant that you will have to evaluate the quality.
    So ask yourself the following questions:

    • Is there an indication that the page has been completed or if it is still under construction?
    • Is it clear if there is a print equivalent to the web page?
    • Is there a clear indication of whether the entire work is available on the web or only parts of it?

With all this information it should be clear to you that you have to be careful when using information from internet for research purposes. If you use the quality criteria just mentioned, the internet can be a very valuable source of information.

Here you can find a tutorial about evaluating web pages: techniques to apply and questions to ask, developed at the University of Berkeley
The page is organized to combine the two techniques into a process that begins with looking at your search results from a search engine or other source, follows through by investigating the content of page, and extends beyond the page to what others may say about the page or its author(s).