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Step 5: Evaluating Sources and Using the Internet

All around the world there is an abundance of information, but only a fraction of it is accurate, relevant and useful. Publications are often more interested in selling ad space than quality reporting, while the Internet can be a minefield of myths and rumors masquerading as fact. That is why it is crucial to know how to properly evaluate any source of info that you would consider using for a research assignment. 

Common Problems With Sources

One of the biggest problems with the overabundance of information is how it can make it difficult, if not impossible, to gather all the relevant facts on a given subject. For instance, if you were to do research on the topic of sex, a quick Web search on the word would yield over a hundred million returns. Therein lies the challenge of determining which sources will be reliable for your research.

Another problem with information overload has to do with the matter of quantity versus quality. Simply put, how do you locate factual and valid sources when the market is inundated with inaccurate and illegitimate sources covering the same topic? This can be especially troublesome with stories that make the rounds through the tabloid media, where hundreds of Web sites, magazines and newspapers are all doing aggregate pieces on the same sketchy info. 

Tip: It will be nearly impossible to find sources without some sort of bias. Be cognizant of the bias present in your source, and do your best to understand where the author is coming from.

 

Equally problematic are the biases that have infiltrated the media, especially on news channels, where the objective is not to report the facts of a story, but to spin the story along the lines of a pre-existing partisan narrative. Bias can even factor in to magazine and Web site articles on everything from entertainment and travel to various products and services, where the writer's intent is not to inform you of the benefits, but to lure you in to giving up your money for the movie tickets, sea cruise, hair-growth formula or home renovation in question. 

For all these reasons and more, it is crucial for you as a writer and researcher to learn how to evaluate each and every source that you might consider using for an assignment. In a sense, the fine art of evaluating sources is akin to investigative work, where you would have to gather clues, search out leads and examine evidence in order to draw conclusions. Knowing how to evaluate your sources will help you deal with situations where there is either a confusing overabundance or a paucity of sources available on a given topic. In cases where you can only find a small amount of pertinent resources, it might be tempting to accept whatever information comes your way. This is where the discipline of evaluation comes in to play, because you must learn to discriminate between good and bad sources in order to be a great writer and researcher. 

Evaluating Biographical Citations

If you search an online database or library catalog for information on a book or article, the first thing that will come up is its bibliographic citation, which will contain a summary of the work and basic info about the writer. Before you take the time to seek out and read the book or article, you should evaluate the citation info to see whether it would be a useful undertaking. The title and summary of the work can be key indicators of its merits, but you should also consider the publication date and how that might affect its relevance to your research. Also, you should check for any keywords associated with the title to get a further sense of whether the contents would be useful to your assignment. 

Evaluating Written Contents

Once you decide to seek out and read through a particular source, you will want to make the following evaluations as you work your way through the text.

Questions for Evaluating Written Content

  1. Examine the preface, table of contents, glossary and index. This should give you a better idea of the author's vision, and whether or not the contents will benefit your research.
  2. Examine the bibliography and references to see whether the book in hand will lead to further readings of interest.
  3. Does the author speak to the very audience that you identify with as a researcher and writer? Does his or her tone or style address the reader in a manner that connects with you?
  4. Determine whether the information presented is based on facts or observations. If you sense that the contents are indeed factual, check to see whether the sources are clearly cited.
  5. Is the topic comprehensively covered with sufficient amounts of evidence, or could there be more?
  6. In what manner does the author argue the points at stake: objectively, analytically, neutrally or subjectively?
  7. Are there any potentially complex issues where the author appears to cut corners or paint too broad of a brushstroke? 
  8. Is there a sufficient integration of primary and secondary sources in the contents at hand?
  9. With opinion-based passages, has the author made a rational and solvent argument for his or hers position? Has the author demonstrated authority on the topic in question?
  10. When was the book or article published? Some information is timeless, but with many topics, research-based content will become outdated whenever new findings come to light.
  11. Do the facts presented match what other sources say about the same topic?
  12. On polarizing topics, does the author accurately acknowledge multiple viewpoints, or only his or her own? 

Internet and Print Sources

Since the emergence of the Internet, people have had access to endless amounts of information from all around the world. When it comes to source evaluation, one of the most crucial things to learn is how to differentiate Web from print sources. While the contents of many newspapers and journals can be found online, the vast majority of Internet content is not duplicated in printed form. Consequently, much of the information that originates online is of low quality.

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Print sources undergo a multi-stage process that involves writing, editing, fact-checking and reviews in advance of publication, whereas online articles can be produced by anyone who knows how to work with word documents on a computer or laptop. As such, the difference between print and Web sources can be summarized in the following areas:

Print vs. Online Sources 

Author Affiliations: Print sources always reveal the author's identity and affiliations, whereas such info is harder to come by with online content.

 

Quotes and Sources: Outside sources and lifted quotes are always credited in publications, but not necessarily so on the Internet.

 

Agendas or Biases: Due to the high costs involved with most printing operations, publications are less likely than Web sites to be steeped in biases or beholden to special interest. Publications that are either partisan or agenda-driven will usually be upfront with those intentions, whereas an Internet site could easily be driven by a Web master's personal agenda

 

Writer Qualifications: Most publications hold a high barrier of entrance for the writers they publish, whereas online content can be produced by anyone, regardless of a given writer's credentials.

 

Data Verification: Authorship and publication dates are always clearly listed on print sources, whereas such info is often unavailable on Web sites, which makes it difficult to gauge the timeliness or relevance of many online sources. 

 

Searching for Information Online

When it comes to doing research, the Internet can be a mixed blessing. On one hand, you will likely find a wide array of info on the majority of topics that you type in to each search engine. However, a lot of that info could be dubiously sourced, outdated or of mixed quality and usefulness.

While the Internet can be a vast resource on numerous topics, there is still a lot of info that you are likelier to find at a library or university archive. Therefore, you should never confine your research to the online realm.

For years, search engines have indexed an ever growing amount of pages across the Web, but there are still numerous pages that fall through the cracks. Some engines crawl sites on an occasional basis, while others only scratch the surface of most Web sites. In cases where the former applies, the matches that come up in search results will often be based on outdated contents. When an engine only crawls the front page of a site, a lot of valid info buried deeper within that site could fail to show up in a Web search. The latter problem is typical of pages that exceed 500k, which tends to be the size limit for engine indexing.

There are also millions of pages that can not be retrieved through conventional engine searches. This buried part of the Web—alternately named the "deep Web" or "invisible Web"—consists of many database pages and files in odd formats.

Gathering Sources Through Search Engines

A search engine will typically be at its handiest when you are looking for info on common topics. Words and search terms like "Einstein" and "Civil War" will draw thousands of returns on their respective topics, but you can narrow down each search for more specific returns. For instance, you could place the word "Oregonians" alongside "Civil War" to yield sources on one of the more curious aspects of the Union / Confederate conflict.

Each search engine will yield slightly different results when you type a word or phrase in to the search bar. Even though Google is the most commonly used, some information is better found through engines like Dogpile and Zoo, both of which perform meta-searches through multiple engines—MSN, Yahoo—all at once. Other engines offer more unique functions, including Ask, where you can enter a search in the form of a question.

Whether or not you exhaust your best options on the mainstream search engines, there are also sites you can use to find things buried in the invisible Web. One of the foremost engines in this regard is Alexa, which contains archived versions of long defunct Web sites from the 1990s and early 2000s. Others, like MagPortal and FindArticles, allow you to search for indexed articles on numerous topics.

Conclusion

Evaluating sources is a skill that you will improve on as you do more research and write more assignments. The key things to remember here are that you must always verify the accuracy, timeliness and completeness of a given source, as well as the objectivity, sincerity and qualifications of the author in question, whether you come across the source in a printed publication or on the Web. 

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