Ten Steps to Better Web Research
Educators, are you tired of reading the same handful of biographies every year? Introduce your students to SweetSearch Biographies, where they will discover 1,000+ well-researched profiles of notable people, sortable by profession, gender, and race/national origin.

Step 7: Are You Looking at Primary Sources? Why Not?

The best research sources you can find online will be primary sources, such as newspaper and magazine accounts, letters, diaries, films, photographs and other documents written or recorded at the time of the event. A detective would think of them as "eyewitness accounts." With primary sources, you won’t have to worry about information getting distorted from one interpretation to another.

Here are some tips for finding primary source material.

And, since not all of your material will be primary source material, use these tips to help you find out if you are looking at the original publisher of an article or an online copycat.

Step 8: Who Created the Web Site and Writes its Article?

A good detective knows that information is only as good as its source. A good Web researcher never decides to use information without considering who gave it to him. You would never trust a book without knowing its author and publisher; why would you trust a Web site without the same information?

When you find an article on a Web site, visit the home page and the About Us page to determine what the site is really about. If the site doesn't list the name of the publisher and its management team—and this is often the case—then leave and and visit another site.

Also look for information about the publisher or author by searching their names in a search engine. Any credible publisher or author should be mentioned on other reputable Web sites.

Many Web tutorials instruct you to look at the “top level domain,” the letters at the end of a Web address, such as .com, .edu, .gov and .org. In the early days of the Internet, sites with endings such as .edu, .org or .gov could generally be considered trustworthy. But to understand why this is no longer true, read “Top Level Domains Not As Useful a Clue As Commonly Believed.”

One “red flag” that we have spotted in our work is that Web sites who names describe their product often cannot be trusted. Many of these Web site names were purchased long ago by enterprising sales people whose primary interest in operating their Web site is to sell you products, not to provide credible information. So be extra careful when evaluating a Web site that has words such as “free/discount/best/your/4You/Web” in its name.

When you find content on Wikipedia, do you know who wrote it? No, you don't. Wikipedia's contributors are anonymous; you do not know anything about them or their credentials. It may be a place to do your “pre-research” to find keywords to search on, but before you use it for more, read “Top 10 Reasons Why Students Cannot Cite or Rely on Wikipedia.”

For more on finding out who publishes a Web site and writes its articles, read “Question Number One: Who Wrote This?

Step 9: Why Did They Write This?

As a police detective would tell you, once you figure out who, next you have to figure out their motive. Is the site trying to sell you something? Does the site appear to have any social or political biases? Any of these factors can impact what information the site does and does not provide, and whether that information contains an unfair bias or a well-rounded overview of a topic.

As educational consultant Angela Maiers says, from an early age you were told to write with the reader in mind; similiarly, you must "read with the writer in mind." So always ask, “Who created this Web site, and who is the author of the content I'm reading?”

For example, many Web search tutorials tell you that a .gov site is trustworthy. But why does WhiteHouse.gov exist? To celebrate the U.S. presidents, not to critically examine their legacy in a fair and balanced way. With this in mind, you may not wish to cite WhiteHouse.gov for anything but basic biographical data.

In our research, we've uncovered hundreds of Web sites that appear to offer valid information but in fact were created for another purpose. 

When asking “why,” also consider the advertisements on the site. If they are overwhelming and mixed in with the site content, you may find that the content is not trustworthy. Just as an infomercial on television is an advertisement disguised as information, some Web sites create content that is only intended to sell a product.

For more information, including some terrific examples of sites that pretend to be one thing but really are another, read “Question Number Two: Why Did They Write This?

The Internet Detective offers “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” covering online hoaxes, spoofs, scams and some common ways to spot them, along with a few real-world examples.

UC Berkeley Library
offers a slightly more advanced guide to evaluating Web sites.

Step 10: When Was the Information Written or Last Revised?

As events unfold over hours, days or weeks, the stories often change a great deal. What a source says about a scientific discovery, about a living person, a war, a new technology or a lot of other things can quickly become untrue.

For example, in the spring of 2009, medical authorities feared the H1N1 virus would be a devastating epidemic. So far, it has fallen far short of that. If you relied primarily on a 2009 news account or report on H1N1, it is likely your paper would receive a very poor grade.

So always check the dates of your sources. If you can't tell when a source was written, then keep looking until you find a good source about the topic that does have a recent date, so you can see if anything has changed. Always use a news search engine to see if there are any new developments, do a Web search with the current year as one of the search terms, and use advanced search options to find recent results.

On the other hand, if you are writing about a historic topic, you should make sure to include primary source documents, such as newspaper and magazine accounts written at the time of the event. If an event occurred in July 1950, then sources written that month may offer a more accurate account of what occurred than a source written today, 60 years later.

For more, read “Question Number Three: When Did They Write This?

Click here for Stage One: Deciding Where to Search

Click here for Stage Two: Planning Your Search


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