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SHB MUS181: Internet Sources: Finding and evaluating web sites

Is it a database or a website?

Libraries purchase databases which index journal articles and often provide full-text copies of those articles.  Although purchased databases are accessed through the internet, they are not "internet sources" or "websites."  Instead, think of these sources as products designed to facilitate academic research.   Because they are purchased, they are not freely available to the public.

Sources other than licensed databases are freely available via Google or other search engines. Publishing information on the Internet is relatively simple and cheap, which, unfortunately, makes it vulnerable to abuse.  Like any information source, Internet sites need to be carefully evaluated for academic use, using the criteria in the box on the right.

Start with a good source!

Most of us search for websites using an Internet search engine, hoping that the best sources will be in the first three pages of results.  The sad fact is that search engines don't rank web sites by quality and the good sites are just as likely to be on page seven.  You can save time and a lot of frustration simply by starting your search with the right source: not a search engine, but a source that recommends sites for the subject you are researching. 

The sites listed below are dedicated to the sole purpose of finding the "good stuff" on the Internet. 

The 5 W's on the Net

Evaluating internet information can be particularly tricky because the layout is different from a print source.  Important information for evaluation can appear in different places, often requiring clicking on two or more links.  Here are some helpful hints for web evaluation:

Who? is the author or publisher of the site? If you can't find a name on the page that you are on, check the "About us," "Contact us" or FAQ sections of the site.

What?  Look for information that indicates reliability. How is it presented?  Are sources cited? Try to identify the format of the information: is it an online newspaper, a blog, a scholarly article?

When? In addition to looking for a “last updated” notification, look for references to current information or events. Sometimes a site will have a “News” or “Media Release” section that will refer to dates. Numerous broken links are often a sign of age.

Where? What type of site is it?  Commercial, institutional, personal? Does the site contain advertisements?  The site’s domain often indicates where it is coming from. Not every .edu/.gov or .org site is guaranteed to be reliable. Generally speaking, however, those sites with domains indicating an educational, governmental or organizational entity will contain authentic information. 

Why? Is there an underlying purpose of the site? What is the word choice utilized in the site?  Do the words indicate particular values and opinions or are they more objective and neutral?