When engaged in academic research of any kind, an individual must evaluate the accuracy and credibility of the text materials he/she uses. The same can be said of research on the World Wide Web. Learning to conduct critical and rigorous research is a skill that is developed with practice. Fortunately, at university and public libraries, staff trained in library science are available to facilitate students' research. These same amenities, however, are not available when students research on the World Wide Web. This section provides some tips, guidelines, and activities that will help you to think critically about information you collect on the World Wide Web.

While the Web is a valuable source of up-to-date information, these resources have not been filtered for content or accuracy. Just about any one can publish anything they want on the Internet. Librarians around the country are aware of these drawbacks to Web research and have provided a range of Internet reference guides to help students identify quality materials.

The Evaluation Process

Some question you might want to ask yourself when evaluating an Internet document:

1. One of the most important steps in the evaluation process is to determine where Web documents originate. Who is the publisher: an individual, a private organization, a corporation, a government agency, or a university? The Uniform Resource Locator (URL) appears in the address bar of your web browser. Each URL for each web document is unique and can aid you evaluating its content. For a complete guide to URLs refer to Understanding and Decoding URLs, published by Elizabeth E. Kirk, Library Instruction Coordinator at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, The Johns Hopkins University. This guide will help you to decipher the Internet domain (the publishing institution) of the Web document you are evaluating. Knowing where information comes from is crucial step in deciding if it is appropriate for geographic research.

2. Identifying the purpose of the page is an important step in the evaluation process. What are the authors trying to convey? How is their presentation biased? While all information is biased in one way or another, this does not necessarily mean that it is not a useful research resource. For instance, a report published by the National Institute of Health on the dangers of smoking while pregnant is biased in that it advocates particular view points that are based on a bio-medical approach to human health. Nevertheless, this report may be a useful and credible resource. The trick is to learn how to identify bias in materials published on the Internet, and then to decide whether it is a credible, authoritative, up-to-date resource or not. Use your best judgment, read between the lines, and beware of resources that carry ambiguous messages.

Here is an exercise that will help to illustrate this last point:
Check the link to the National Organization for Women (NOW) Homepage
Does this homepage clearly identify its members, financial contributors, and purpose? Are NOW's objectives clearly stated?
Now check the link to American Renaissance , an online journal. 
Does this homepage clearly identify its political intent? Who publishes this journal? How is it financed? 
Check their links to other internet resources
What kinds of messages about race in America are the editors of American Renaissance trying to communicate?
Take a look at The Earth First Journal
What kinds of issues are addressed in this journal? 
Who publishes articles in this journal? Is this a scholarly journal? Is it refereed?
Last, check the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institute of Health (NIH). 
Does the page identify its research objectives and funding sources (private or public funding)? 
Why does the page have a special section on the "Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications" of human genome research?
Each of these sites has a special interest and a political agenda. Are materials from these Internet sites credible and appropriate sources for academic research? Some may be appropriate and others may not.

3. This brings us to the next question: How does one define "authoritative" and "credible" when it comes to resources on the web. What are good criteria for evaluating web pages? To begin with, it may be useful to refer to the document How to Critically Analyze Information Sources, published by the Reference Services Division of the Olin*Kroch*Uris Libraries at Cornell University Library. This outline provides guidelines that are applicable to paper and Internet texts.

For a more detailed information on how to evaluate Web resources, take a look at the evaluation check lists and tips provided by these University Library resource centers:
The Wolfgram Memorial Library at Widener University in Chester, PA 
Evaluating Web Resources
Check the section entitled Evaluation Checklists.
The University at Albany Libraries 
Evaluating Internet Resources
The UCLA College Library 
Thinking Critically about World Wide Web Resources

Activity 4: Web Research Project

1. The range of resources available on your topic: statistics, articles, overviews?

2. Who is publishing the information: individuals, businesses, government agencies?

3. Is the information issued by authoritative and credible sources?

4. Is the information accurate?

5. Is the information easy or difficult to locate in the Web?

6. Is the information complete? What kinds of information and sources are missing?

7. Is the information up-to-date or, alternatively, covering only recent years?

8. How does the coverage of your subject in the Web compare with sources available in printed form? Go have a look at the general libraries!

As the subject of you report, you may pick a topic that relates to your personal interests, but it must also relate to a geographical or environmental issue. Examples might be: deforestation in the tropics; commercial nuclear power generation in the US; urban transport; the management of national forests or national parks; endangered species; energy resources; an environmental hazard; glaciation; karst geomorphology; or environmental issues on the Gulf Coast.

Exert care in picking a topic. If you pick a very broad subject such as "resource management," you will have to sort through hundreds or thousands of sources. If, on the other hand, you pick a very narrow topic like "gap analysis," you will find very few sources. Pick a subject somewhere between these extremes.

Begin preliminary searching on two or three topics to gain a feel for their coverage in the Web before you make your final choice.

The point is not to write a report about the subject, but to analyze information on that subject found in the Web!

You will publish your report in the Web and link it to your homepage. Your report will amount to the equivalent of a 4-6 page paper report, but will be composed in hypertext (with hyperlinks directly to the sources being discussed) and organized in an appropriate file structure.

Here are some links to some examples of evaluation reports published on the Web by students in The Geographer's Craft (GRG 859).
Web Research Project: Urban Transportation
by Marcia Workman
New Urbanism on the Web
by Daniel Brown
Tornado Alley Project
Cheryl Fey Alpert

Page created on 10/27/97 by Jennifer Allan Goett. Last revised 2001.6.27.