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Internet Data, Reliability of

Internet Data, Reliability of


The Internet can be a wonderful resource for all types of information including quantitative data. The Internet is accessible, both for those who want to obtain information and for those who want to make data available. Since there is so much readily accessible information, Internet users must learn to filter the data they find on the World Wide Web , because the providers of information may misuse numbers and mathematics in order to appear convincing. Therefore, Internet users should learn to evaluate data carefully, critically, and even skeptically.

To start, your local librarian could be of invaluable assistance in helping you discriminate between useful Internet sources of information and those web sites that would be a waste of time to visit. Remember that anyone can publish a web page on the Internet, and many web sites may be of little value in a search for specific quantitative information. Many librarians, particularly reference librarians, are specialists trained to effectively and efficiently search and obtain information for library patrons. The information specialist at your local library can save you significant time in your search for valid and reliable Internet data.

Filtering Information through the URL

Because the Internet is such a vast source of information of varying quality, web resources must be evaluated for authority, reliability, objectivity, accuracy,

and currency. More traditional sources of information, such as an article in an encyclopedia, are screened with all those criteria in mind by authors, reviewers, editors, and publishers. That is not the case for most of the information on the Internet. No one has to approve the content of web sites, so it is your job to assess the appropriateness of the data you find on the Internet.

The domain name of the web page can reveal a great deal about the authority of the information on the web page. The domain name is the first part of the uniform resource locator (URL), and is the code that identifies the source of the web page. For example, of the address abc.com, the "abc" is the domain name.

Agencies of the U.S. government are assigned the .gov suffix, so you can trust that most of the information on those web sites has been screened for accuracy. The .edu suffix is usually assigned to 4-year degree-granting institutions. Much of the information posted on these sites has been prepared by scholars. Remember, however, that students also can post information on academic web pages, and sometimes faculty members post controversial and biased information to support their position. Thus, information on university web pages should still be treated with skepticism.

The .org domain suffix was originally meant for charities and non-profit organizations, a .com ending meant the site was for commercial businesses, and the .net suffix indicated the site is concerned with network issues. There are many sites with .com, .org, or .net suffixes that contain invaluable, reliable, and accurate information, but remember that the people creating those sites have particular economic, social, or political purposes in establishing a web presence. There is great potential that the data presented on their web pages may not be as complete, accurate, and unbiased as you require.

Web Pages with Authors

Beyond the domain name, the authority of the web page can be ascertained from the page itself. The name of the author(s) should be clearly visible in the header or footer of the web page, with contact information (e-mail, phone number, and address) provided. If the author is affiliated with an organization, this information should be clearly evident on the web page. You should scrutinize the author's education, experience, and reputation in the field you are investigating. That is easily accomplished by finding biographical information, often linked to the web page, and by looking for evidence of peer-reviewed, scholarly work by the author.

Closely connected to the authority of the web page is the reliability of the data found at that Internet site. Evidence that the information is reliable can be determined by observing if the information presented on the web site is of a reputable author or organization, if the data are taken from books or sources subject to quality control processes, or if the site itself is an online journal that is refereed by editors or other experts in the field.

Related to the reliability of the quantitative information obtained from a web page is the objectivity of the author. One of the purposes of a web site is for the author or organization to persuade viewers to adopt a particular point of view, and sometimes this is done in a subtle and surreptitious manner. The bias manifests itself in the presentation of incomplete or, worse, inaccurate quantitative information slanted toward the perspective of the author. If the data look too good to be true, they probably are. Be wary of a hidden agenda, which can often be detected from the explicit or implicit purpose of the page. That purpose can only determined by careful and critical viewing of the site.

Looking at Information with a Skeptical Eye

Finally, you can assess the accuracy and currency of information found at an Internet site by observing if the information is timely and comprehensive. The document should be dated, particularly if the subject information is known to change rapidly. Sites that have many outdated links are not well-maintained and probably are not current. Web pages that acknowledge opposing points of view or are sponsored by non-commercial enterprises have a tendency to be more reliable.

While looking for data on the Internet, be aware that search engines do not evaluate web sites for the reliability or relevance of the information they contain. The various search engines have different algorithms for selecting sites, and those algorithms are generally not matched to your needs. For example, some search engines give priority to sites that are associated with sponsors of the search engine, and some give priority to the most popular web pages. Although search engines do not evaluate the quality of web pages, "evaluative" web sites examine other sites based on quality of content, authority, currency, and other useful criteria.

Additionally, the lack of professionalism exhibited on the web page tells a great deal about the data contained on the page. The presence of spelling errors is an important indicator, as is the illogical organization of the site. Source documentation is extremely important, especially when it comes to the presentation of statistics and other quantitative information. The authors providing the Internet data should clearly identify the sources of the information they post, so that you can corroborate and confirm the validity of the data. If the source of the data is not clearly explained or specified, the information should be suspect. If there are links to the source data, this is a very good sign that the information may be accurate and reliable. Another positive indicator is the inclusion of a bibliography displaying related sources with proper attribution.

As a general rule, you should challenge all of the information you find on the Internet. Information coming from reliable sources, such as those sites containing a .gov domain name or a respected author, does not require as stiff a scrutiny as information posted on a personal web page. Validate the information by finding other Internet sources or printed sources that support the information found on an Internet site. You should never use Internet information you cannot verify. Information is power, and in learning to become skeptical and critical readers and viewers of Internet data, you will obtain the power that comes with having accurate information.

see also Internet.

Dick Jardine

Internet Resources

Cohen, Laura, and Trudy Jacobson. "Evaluating Internet Resources." <http://library.albany.edu/internet/evaluate.html>.

Grassian, Esther. "Thinking Critically about Discipline-based WWW Resources." <http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/college/help/critical/discipline.htm>.

Harris, Robert. "Evaluating Internet Research Sources" <http://www.media-awareness.ca/eng/med/class/teamed2/harris.htm>.

Kirk, Elizabeth. "Evaluating Information Found on the Internet."<http://milton.mse.jhu:8001/research/education/net.html>.

"Evaluating Web Sites." <http://www.lib.lfc.edu/internetsearch/evalWeb.html>.

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