In my last post, I talked about how you can find good source material for your university essays. Now, let’s look at ways to recognize sources that may not be so good.
I’ve been assigning university essays and presentations for five years now. I can tell you that all of the worst, least valid sources my students have used are from the Internet. But then, my student’s best sources usually come from the Internet too. The Internet is the “Wild West” of information. It’s a fun, open frontier full of hidden treasure and peril. As such, the Web really can be your best friend or your worst enemy when you’re researching an academic essay.
The trick is to use the Internet correctly, avoiding the bad while keeping the good. To do this, you need to ask yourself a number of questions.
Questions to ask yourself as you evaluate an Internet source:
- Is the information on the website created by users?
When I say users, I mean ordinary people, like you and me. If a website is user-created, then anyone can write something and have it published on the site. The most famous example of this is Wikipedia. Other examples include Internet message boards, and websites where people can post questions and get answers form other users, such as Yahoo Answers. User-created content is hard to prove as true—and professors hate the stuff!
- Is the information on the website created by unpaid, non-professional writers?
Sometimes a site can seem very informative. It can look credible. But the authors themselves may not have any real qualifications. Wikipedia, which I mentioned above as a user-controlled site, is a good example of this. But even sites that aren’t user-controlled can have this problem.Take the website for “The Society for Dissemination of Historical Fact.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? And the site looks good, and is written in a nice scholarly tone. But all writers are volunteers, and their stated goal is to write about “facts” that are not accepted by actual qualified historians.
- Is the information on the website created by a writer who is professional but may not be qualified?
Here, you want to check to specifically see if a professional writer is reliable on the subject they’re writing about. Take this article on the invention of the “black box,” a flight recorder for airplanes. The author Marry Bellis is identified as an “Inventors Expert” in the article. But if you click her picture for more information, her university degrees are in film and animation. This does not necessarily make her an expert on aviation history or technology.
- Is the information on the website sponsored by a possibly biased source?
Sometimes a source has obvious bias—this means a motivation to take a certain side in an argument or believe certain things. The official website for the United States office of President is a good example of this. It contains a lot of valid information about presidential events and travels. But the site also acts as a voice for whoever is currently the US president. So it has some obvious political bias. Similarly, article on religious websites (such as the famous multi-faith Patheos site) usually contain some religious bias, no matter how fair the writers try to be. Some websites are actually biased by design—they are created specifically to argue from one point of view or another. Opinion sections of news websites are like this—they publish pieces from writers who want to explain and defend their biases. So as you do online research, be sure you can tell the difference between editorial opinion pieces and actual reporting.
As you look for these signs that a source may not be valid, remember that none of these features automatically make an online source bad. User-created content can serve as a great sample of public opinion—and sometimes a user-contribute also happens to be an identifiable, well-qualified author. A non-professional or seemingly unqualified writer may still have some important insights—for example, the personal writings of an ordinary hurricane victim may be just as valuable as a report by a scientist who studies weather disasters. And certainly, people with possible political or religious bias are real authorities on the beliefs of their political and religious groups.
The trick is not to completely eliminate a source. Instead, as you research your academic essays, try to understand a source’s strengths and weaknesses, so you can use the source correctly.