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Think Critically About Websites

How many times have you found yourself clicking on a provocative headline, only to find out it's an advertisement? News articles and advertisements often resemble each other, and many websites are fronts for selling products. It's hard to distinguish the good from the bad.

How can you tell which sites are trustworthy, and which are dubious?

Use these criteria, which focus on "Who?" and "Why?":

Evaluate the source

  • Who is the author? A well-constructed page should give this information. Look for the author's academic or scholarly credentials. If the site does not provide author information, a research and instruction librarian will help you find information about the author.
  • Is the author an authority or expert? A trustworthy source is usually one in which the author has direct experience or a relevant advanced degree in the same field. Note, for example, whether the author's PhD is related to the field of inquiry, or to something else entirely.
  • Who is responsible for the site? Is the site sponsored by a group or organization that has a vested interest in the information given? Unless a known, reputable publisher or institution is responsible for the content, that content will be more questionable in terms of reliability. Be even more skeptical if no person or group has obvious responsibility for the site.
  • Is the site an academic, commercial, governmental, or personal site? The answer to this question will often tell you what the purpose of the author or creator of the site is.

Evaluate the content

  • Who is the intended audience? Is the audience meant to be researchers or students in higher education? Search online for a particular URL to see which kinds of websites have links to it. This may help to determine the target audience.
  • Is there a stated purpose for the page? Is it to inform, to explain, to persuade, or to even sell a product? Or, is the site's goal merely to entertain an audience?
  • What type of language is used? Is it even-handed and objective in tone, or does it make exaggerated claims? Are the arguments overstated, and the limitations glossed over? Note whether the language is mainly self-promotional.
  • How objective is the information? Try to distinguish factual data from opinions. Be on the lookout for manipulative reasoning and bias. If the topic is a controversial one, the author should admit it.
  • How accurate is the data? As accuracy is not always easy to identify, you may wish to test a particular source against others on the topic. Is the information well researched and based on evidence? Does it provide an in-depth analysis of the topic?
  • Is the content up-to-date? Many topics, especially in the sciences, change quickly and require recently published information. Check to see when the site was last updated.
  • Does the site refer to other sites or data? Are they relevant and reliable sources? A good, reliable webpage is not apt to refer to irrelevant and unreliable sources.

Research and Instruction Librarians

Research and instruction librarians can recommend research sites and databases to help you in your research. They have also created subject guides with recommended subject-specific webpages that you might find useful.