Websites are generally considered tertiary sources when conducting research; they synthesize other sources and rarely provide original content. While websites are very useful for certain tasks (ex. checking weather reports and stock values), the Internet can be a tangled web that mixes misinformation and duplicates original ideas and concepts. Many of the same criteria used to evaluate books and journals can be applied to websites. Consider these five criteria when using websites:
- Who is the author of the website? Is there contact information for the author?
- What are the author’s credentials? Are they qualified to present information on the topic?
- Is this site sponsored by an organization? Is this organization a commercial or non-profit organization? Can you verify the credentials of the organization?
- Does the site list its references?
Authoritative: The Census website is an authoritative source for demographic statistics of U.S. states, counties, and municipalities.
Questionable Authority: This webpage on the biblical teachings of the Sabbath day fails to name an author and simply identifies itself as “self-funded ministry”. There is no actual organization listed, much less proof of 501c3 status.
- Is the website intended for entertainment? Education? Selling a product? Defending a claim or critiquing others’ ideas?
- Does the page represent personal views or the views of an institution?
- Does the site purport to survey information, offer an analysis of topic, or provide a comprehensive background on a topic?
- What is the domain?
- .gov-Goverment websites*
- .edu-Educational websites*
- .org-Organizational website
- .com, .biz, .info-Commercial and personal websites
- *.gov and .edu domains require a special license and are reserved for government and educational entities. Other domains can be freely acquired and thus, the information is less reliable.
The United Methodist Church‘s official website is the clearinghouse for public information about the denomination. It has a comprehensive list of United Methodist churches, information about foreign missions, and statement(s) of belief.
- Is there an overt bias on the website? Is there a hidden one?
- How does the bias affect the information on the website?
- How doe the views expressed on the website compare to the treatment of the same subject on other websites?
The Jesus-Is-Savior website features many incendiary remarks about America’s support for the state of Israel.
- When was the page last updated?
- When was the site last updated?
- Do the hyperlinks on the page work?
- Does your topic require up-to-date data?
NPR‘s website features hourly podcast updates and adds new articles daily.
- Does the website express personal observations? Review and critique the research of others? Present original research data?
- Is the information relevant to your research assignment?
- What is the tone of the writing? Persuasive? Objective? Entertaining?
- Are there advertisements on the page? What is the ratio of advertisements to content?
- Does the author back up their claims with ample references?
The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Religion and Theology has links to reputable online journals in theology and religion.
This site synthesizes some of the best non-subscription content on the web for theological research.
Hoax, Slanderous, and Spoof Sites
As there is no censorship of web resources, many websites purposely distort information. Using the criteria listed above, you should be able to discern these types of sites. The purpose of these sites may be to slander others or satirize and parody something for the entertainment of viewers.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A True Historical Examination is a hoax site that is maintained by Stormfront, a white supremacist group. The site makes libelous claims about Martin Luther King Jr.’s contribution to the civil rights movement. This site usually appears on the first page of results when performing a Google search for “Martin Luther King Jr.”.
The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site is an example of a playful hoax.
The Onion is a parody of popular cable news networks. The intent of The Onion is to entertain, not to provide an accurate account of current events.