Evaluating Online Information

Introduction

With the exponential growth of the world wide web, students need a more critical eye to sift through the bulk of information available online. While the Internet speeds up access to information, it also paves to the publication of anything, by anyone anywhere. Gone are the days when articles must be critiqued and evaluated before publication. Today, scholarly articles are not just buried in the bounty files of information. Their unscholarly counterparts also outnumber them. This reality reinforces the importance of critically evaluating online information. College students should learn the art of evaluating web-based information to make the most of them.

Criteria For Evaluating Online Information

Familiarity with the criteria for evaluating online information is an impetus to information literacy. Information literacy is the ability to locate, evaluate and recognize pertinent information and their concrete use. Students will benefit significantly from the said competency skills set especially when they consistently weigh the value of given information via either CARS or RADCAB.

CARS stands for Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness and Support while RADCAB stands for Relevance, Appropriateness, Detail, Currency, Authority and Bias. Regardless of the acronym, the said 2 sets of criteria centers on 3 factors: authorship, publishing body and timeliness.

Criterion 1: Authorship

Authorship answers the “who” question. Who is behind the content of a web document? Web documents are not just a collection of random thoughts and random words. They are created for some purpose either for personal, advocacy, promotion, or marketing. Author’s education, training and background and the connection will give students a glimpse of why a given article is written in a certain manner. They will also establish the credibility or expertise of the author.

Authorship seems to be a central issue in determining the value of online information. Thousands of articles in the web are written in anonymity, and their content may prove to be difficult to evaluate. In a situation like this, try to look for footnotes, sources, links, or other means of finding the sources of information. Making a claim without the backing of verifiable statistics, report on a recent development and/or scholarly and research work is tantamount to opining. If a web document provides no means to validate authorship or accuracy of content, its credibility should be put in question. Never use information, which you cannot verify especially those involving numbers.

Criterion 2: Publishing Body

The publishing body answers another “who” question. Who published the article? If a respected organization or scholarly website published the web document, this means that it has undergone some scrutiny, including a peer review. If the web document is self-published, the resource should be taken with caution. While self-published documents are not necessarily erroneous, there is no third party vouching for the accuracy of its content. Moreover, some self-published web documents are personal in perspectives. Thus, its objectivity should be questioned.

The URL for self-published web documents usually includes the nonbreaking space character (~), the percentage sign (%) or the words user, people or members. On a positive note, self-published web documents may contain objective opinions, links to credible and relevant sources, and significant statistics. While this is a possibility, information published in print is still considered more reputable than those published in the web. It is crucial to note, however, that a growing number of government agencies, independent think tanks, nongovernment organizations, and other reputable publishing companies now publish scholarly works on the web.

Criterion 3: Timeliness

Timeliness refers to the currency of information. It is noteworthy because while there is some timeless information, there are also some time-sensitive data like census, current events or technology news. In print, the date of publication is the primary indicator of timeliness. In the web, publication date, last updated date and copyright date ascertain timeliness. Anonymity can also be central in determining the timeliness of the information. While old information is not necessarily without any use, in many cases, accurate and up-to-date information is essential. Be extra careful if a web document does not provide any means to verify its timeliness.

Synthesis

While publication of anonymous web documents is thriving, there are those, which are published with full-disclosure. They are web documents, which do not just bare authorship, the publishing body, or the document’s date of publication, but also elect to reveal the biases inherent to the author and the publishing body. Whales in the Minnesota River is an excellent example of this variety. Aside from author Tina Kelley’s assail of sail pitches in some reputable websites and deception in others, it also reveals its publisher’s own biases: The Times’ website includes links to Barnesandnoble.com on its book review pages and the publication receives commissions from the resulting sales. There is no perfect objectivity. Full-disclosure, however, builds credence, and Kelley just did that. This is also to say that, there are still solid, trustworthy and accurate information in the web. It is just a matter of evaluating online information and the sharpening of information literacy.

Additional Resources

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: or, Why It’s a Good Idea to Evaluate Web Sources – Maintained by the New Mexico State University Library, this website lists a set of criteria and examples and provides tips in evaluating web resources. Evaluating Internet Information – Maintained by Virginia Tech University Libraries, this web page details information necessary to determine quality information on the web. Evaluating Internet Research Sources – Written by Dr. Robert A. Harris, this resource provides a summary of the CARS checklist for research source evaluation. Fact, Fiction, or Opinion? Evaluating Online Information – This resource expounds the idea of information literacy while specifying the factors to examine when evaluating the quality of a website.