When conducting research, it is important to evaluate the information you find as well as the source it comes from. Depending on the topic, research question, etc., different types of sources are better suited to addressing the information need. Additionally, sources themselves should be evaluated using certain evaluative criteria.
There are many sources available for people to seek and find information. These sources provide varying amounts of information related to the scope and depth of information they provide. Understanding the type of information each source provides can help us determine the best source(s) for our information need.
Reference/Background sources provide quick facts and a brief overview of topics. Reference sources don't provide any analysis or interpretations of topics. Background sources are useful for getting a basic understanding of a topic. They're a good place to start when doing research, especially if you aren't familiar with the topic.
Books cover topics more in-depth and have a narrower focus than background sources. Since books are longer than entries in a reference source, they are able to provide more detail about a topic. Since they provide more in-depth, detailed information on a topic, sometimes it's more information than you need. However, you can choose to use only certain chapters or sections from a book.
News sources can include newspapers, the internet, radio, and television. These types of sources provide immediate, up-to-the minute information. However, the depth of the information is shallow and are secondary in nature, meaning they're reporting on events second hand.
Magazines offer longer articles than news sources, and can be general in nature, or more specific. For example, a science magazine would provide articles specific to science, while Time magazine provides articles on a wide range of topics. The articles are more in-depth than news sources, but less in-depth than books. Magazines are published approximately every week or month, have a short time to publication (unlike a book which takes some time), and are popular in nature (not scholarly). Magazines are a good source for current events and up-to-date information.
Journals offer research-based articles that are more in-depth than magazine or news sources. The articles are written by experts in the topic, contain primary research, and are narrow in scope. Journals are scholarly in nature and considered a good, reputable source to use for academic work. Journals are a good source to use to help you support or contradict your thesis statement.
The internet can be a wonderful research tool with valuable information that can be used in academic assignments. However, it is critical to evaluate the information sources found on the internet to validate them for accuracy, bias, and credibility. Part of this evaluation process is understanding the types of web sites that exist.
Think of the Internet as a newsstand and you may understand that information of all sorts can be found here. Perhaps a few scholarly journals may be there, but there are lots of tabloids out there as well. Then think beyond a newsstand and think of all sorts of information you can get in print-- from a bookstore, a library, the fliers outside a grocery store, the flier on your car's windshield, the letter you receive by an activist organization asking for a donation. The very same information that can come from any of these forms can be on web pages that turn up from your search on the Web.
Here are the brief definitions of the types of web sites:
"An Advocacy Web Page is one sponsored by an organization attempting to influence public opinion (that is, one trying to sell ideas). The URL address of the page frequently ends in .org (organization)."
"A Business/Marketing Web Page is one sponsored by a commercial enterprise (usually it is a page trying to promote or sell products). The URL address of the page frequently ends in .com (commercial)."
"A News Web Page is one whose primary purpose is to provide extremely current information. The URL address of the page usually ends in .com (commercial)."
"An Informational Web Page is one whose purpose is to present factual information. The URL Address frequently ends in .edu or .gov, as many of these pages are sponsored by educational institutions or government agencies.
Examples: Dictionaries, thesauri, directories, transportation schedules, calendars of events, statistical data, and other factual information such as reports, presentations of research, or information about a topic."
"A Personal Web Page is one published by an individual who may or may not be affiliated with a larger institution. Although the URL address of the page may have a variety of endings (e.g. .com, .edu, etc.), a tilde (~) is frequently embedded somewhere in the URL."
Reading the URL:
Another element to look at when evaluating a web site, is the structure of its own address.
What is the domain? (the three or two character extension at the end of the main institution's address, which is the address before the first single slash on the right):
http://www.amazon.com/ http://www.epa.gov/ http://www.berkeley.edu/
A .com is a commercial web site, meaning the institution is a corporate or small business entity.
A .gov indicates the sponsoring institution is a government body, which has the responsibility to provide reliable information.
A .org is a nonprofit organization that sometimes can be quite strong in their beliefs, other times can actually be a good institution providing lots of useful information and sometimes in an objective manner. Most often, though the web site is more often selling its ideas and therefore, can be more biased.
A .edu is coming from an educational institution (usually four years and more). Many educational websites will have reliable information, however you need to read a .edu web site beyond the first slash to make sure (see below).
The domain can immediately say something about the institution, however be prepared. Sometimes, some institutions will use a different domain (example: a law firm that provides services to nonprofit organization uses: http://www.npdomain.org )
What do you know about the sponsoring institution?
Could provide a clue about an organization's integrity as well as maybe its bias. The name of the institution is usually what appears after the server (usually www) and before the domain (.com, .edu, etc.):
Is it a personal web page?
Personal web pages are usually clearly marked by having a user name somewhere within the address. Often the username of the person is followed by a ~ (a tilde symbol).
The above address clearly marks that the web page is by a student, however, not all educational institutions will have such a clear folder marked such as "students." (In fact "users" is more often used). But the ~ symbol is much more universal in warning you that it is a personal home page and usually not by an expert. Professors and other academics usually do not have a ~ before their user name.
A personal home page can also be indicated by an Internet Services Provider or web page provider. Watch out for addresses that have the words "members," any relating to a "home page" or a number used as part of the address. Sometimes an institution or company may have such an address, and sometimes graduate students or even professors (such as part-time teachers) can keep their information on such web sites as well. However, most often such pages are usually personal web pages reflecting the opinions of a person who may or may not be an expert, or an obscure organization.
Evaluate the Site Carefully, using the CRAAP test to help you