Making the Most of the Internet
Peter Suber & Liffey Thorpe

Issue #5 Evaluating Internet Sources September 27, 1998

You remember the problem from the days of print:

"If it's in print, then it's true. To quote a printed source is to settle disputes and close the door on further inquiry. All journals in a field are equally good for all topics in the field. All articles on a topic are equally good on the topic."

The problem has become worse with the web. For many users, the computer has a special mystique and authority that not even print has attained. Moreover, in seconds, students can find 150,000 web sites that use a certain key term.

"If all sources are equally good, then to read the first three or four is a painless way to do legitimate research. Finding a site that answers a question is equivalent to finding a site that answers the question well."

If the authority that students attribute to web sources were due to the mystique of the computer, then we could expect it to fade away in about a generation. Students growing up with computers will not hold them in the awe that their parents and teachers did. But clearly there is more going on here than mystique. Generation after generation of students has been naive about print despite its familiarity.

Computer-mystique cannot explain the whole problem. Much more of it lies in the authority that students are willing to attribute to any published text. But this too is odd, at least for texts published online. Most students understand how easy it is to put dreck on the web. Some have done it themselves and know it. Many have their favorite examples of dreck on the web. So they should distrust what they read online much more than what they read in print.

Perhaps they do. Perhaps, in fact, the ease of self-publishing on the web is teaching our students vivid lessons about evidence, argument, credentials, peer review, and the need for authoritative filters —in short, lessons on the epistemology of scholarship— that bibliographic instruction and courses in research methodology and critical thinking never taught them.

Still, students don't distrust enough. For many students, dreck on the web is indicated by poor aesthetics, not poor credentials, citations, or evidence. Strong aesthetics are taken as a sign of reliability and authority —it looks like print. Truth and goodness become look and feel.

One reason why students are unduly deferential to published texts is that the alternative puts one in the woods without a compass. Easy trust in published sources lets us focus on the topic, which we may love. Distrust makes us focus on epistemology, which is a distraction from the topic we love. To answer our doubts, we must do research, which is difficult and time-consuming. This is just as true on the web as it is in a print library. One doesn't have to be lazy to be daunted by this prospect. One need only be busy or ill-equipped.

If being too ill-equipped for research prevents one from doing the research that will equip one, then there is a chicken-and-egg paradox here. Peter has argued elsewhere that this paradox is real, not merely apparent. Students are not in a position to evaluate sources in a discipline until they understand the methods, criteria, and accepted paradigms of that discipline. As Spinoza put it, you need an iron hammer to make an iron hammer. This circle cannot be broken by mere cleverness; so there is no simple solution. We acquire disciplinary mastery the way we first produced iron hammers, from slow, cumulative progress in using what we have to get something better.

As we see it, teachers can take two approaches to this problem. You can learn how to evaluate web sites and then teach your students. Or you can put good primers and exercises in front of your students and invite them to teach themselves. There may be no difference in the long run, if good teaching (as someone once said) is measured by what students figure out in your presence. But there is a difference in the short run. Some web sites on the evaluation of internet sources are sufficiently clear, accessible, and fun to put into the hands of your students. Others are not.

Here are our picks for accessible sites that students would enjoy.

  1. Internet Detective:  an interactive tutorial on evaluating the quality of Internet resources.
    • From the Development of a European Service for Information on Research and Education (DESIRE Project), written by Emma Worsfold and Debra Holm, of the Institute for Learning and Research Technology, University of Bristol, and Marianne Peereboom of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek or National Library of the Netherlands.
    • This self-paced tutorial requires users to register, though registration is free of charge. It invites web surfers to adopt the attitude of private detectives who ask questions and look for clues to answers. The heart of the tutorial is a section on the criteria by which to evaluate a web site. For each criterion, it offers helpfully concrete "worst case scenarios" of web sites that fail to live up to the criterion. Another good section consists of worked examples, showing exactly which clues in mock-up web pages lead good detectives to which evaluative judgments about the page's quality. The tutorial offers self-help quizzes at the end of each section.

  2. Truth, Lies, and the Internet.
    • By Keith Ferrell, former editor of Omni Magazine.
    • Students who aren't convinced that there is a problem might be persuaded by the Internet Lie Detector Test and the links to net hoaxes, pseudoscience, and urban legends. The examples of falsehood and exaggeration are real. Students will find them fascinating and perhaps even familiar. The tutorial culminates in a series of sensible tips on avoiding deception from online sources.

  3. Hoax? Scholarly Research? Personal Opinion? You Decide!.
    • By Esther Grassian and Diane Zwemer of the UCLA College Library. The exercise is based on Alexander and Tate's Evaluating Web Resources, which we include in the list for teachers below.
    • This tutorial links to actual sites around the web. In the exercise, students visit the sites and decide whether they would use them in a research paper. The tutorial helps with questions directing attention to aspects of the sites relevant to judging their reliability. There are examples in each of several distinct genres, such as science, news, and political advocacy.

  4. Finally, you might raise student consciousness of the many parameters of web site reliability by asking them to fill out the CyberGuide Evaluation Form for every web site they use in a research assignment. Karen McLachlan, Media Specialist at East Knox High School (Howard, Ohio), designed this form for teachers, but it —or your own variation on it— could work just as well for students.

Here are our picks for sites aimed at teachers (in alphabetical order by author).

  1. Bibliography on Evaluating Internet Resources. By Nicole Auer, Library Instruction Coordinator, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

  2. Evaluating Information on the Internet. By D. Scott Brandt, Technology Training Librarian at Purdue University Libraries.

  3. Evaluating Internet Research Sources. By Robert Harris, Professor of English at Southern California College.

  4. Evaluating Web Resources. By Jan Alexander and Marsha Tate, librarians at Wolfgram Memorial Library, Widener University.
    • Good checklists for sites of various kinds, e.g. news, marketing, advocacy. Links to other sites on evaluation internet sources.

  5. The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly:  or, Why It's a Good Idea to Evaluate Web Sources. By Susan E. Beck, Instruction Coordinator, New Mexico State University Library.
    • Good examples and good criteria for evaluation. But set up to help teachers design internet assignments rather than for self-study. Links to other sites on evaluation internet sources.

  6. Testing the Surf:  Criteria for Evaluating Internet Information Resources. By Alastair G. Smith, Senior Lecturer, School of Communications and Information Management, Victoria University of Wellington.
    • Smith has also put together a large collection of web links on the problem of evaluating internet sources. We recommend his list for further reading.

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Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College
A.L.P. Thorpe, Department of Classics, Earlham College
Copyright © 1998, Peter Suber, A.L.P. Thorpe.