We hear anecdotal stories of false claims made on the Internet that on the face of the article/website appear authoritative and accurate. Yet, it cannot be that everything on the Internet is bogus. So, how do we determine the wheat from the chaff?
We start by looking at some examples of false claims.
Example: Bogus press release distributed on newswire service. Some main-stream news media ran the story [FBI Arrests Man in Shares Hoax, BBC News, 1 September 2000. (accessed 26 August 2008)].
Moral of the story: Bad information can appear in the news. A phone call (to the company with the press release) can save face.
Example: Do-Not-Email registry copies the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC“) Do-Not-Call site. There is no such registry. It was set-up to solicit email addresses [Sham Site is a Scam, Federal Trade Commission, 12 February 2004. (accessed 26 August 2008)].
Moral of the story: Scams abound in email and on the Web. Know who you are doing business with. Insist on a secure Web page for the submission of personal information.
Example: Articles published, and patents submitted, based on misrepresented research data. [Scientific Fraud Found at Bell Labs, Associated Press, 26 September 2002. (accessed 26 August 2008)].
Moral of the story: Professional publications are not immune to bad information. Skepticism and verification are your best defenses.
Illicitly Edited Works
Example: Hacker edited several stories at Yahoo News for 2 months. [Yahoo News Hacked, Security Focus, 18 September 2001. (accessed 26 August 2008)]
Moral of the story: Electronic information can be changed surreptitiously after publication. Skepticism and verification is your best defence.
Bad Information in Print
Example: Error in instructions in “Dummies Book” for making lye created a burn hazard. [Recall of Dummies Book, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 15 October 2003. (accessed 26 August 2008)]
Moral of the story: Errors appear in print too.
Example: Con artist duped Slate reporter into publishing two diary entries he thought came from the CEO of BMW, Americas. [Who Is Robert Klinger? Slate, 12 March 2002. (accessed 26 August 2008)].
Moral of the story: Check out (verify) sources. Don’t rely exclusively on email for communication. Consult a technician if you suspect the source of an email.
Unreliable or Inaccurate Sources
Example: Health Grades provides physician profiles. Rocky Mountain news found they were accurate only 42 percent of the time. Profiles or reports on people are often inaccurate because of errors in reporting information [Analysis Gives Health Grades Flunking Marks, Rocky Mountain News, 16 October 2004. (accessed 26 August 2008)].
Moral of the story: Get information from the primary source when possible, which in this case, is the state medical board. Always verify information, especially information about people.
Now that we know what is bad, how do we tell what is good? Use the non-exhaustive list of things to look out for as a guide.
How To Evaluate And Verify the Information
Identify the Source: Who is providing the information?
- Check domain ownership using Whois look-ups.
- Learn how to decode a Web address and detect Web site spoofing.
- Read “about us” and author bios.
- Examine links to and from other Web sites.
Anyone can publish a Web site. Examples illustrating source identification:
- Clearly indicated: GigaLaw
- Multiple sources different from site owner: AllRefer.com
- Masked: Gatt.org
Discover the Source’s Expertise: Is the source an expert or authority?
- Examine credentials in author bios and “about us” pages.
- Examine grammar and spelling.
- Examine links to and from other Web sites.
- Look for other publications by the author or publisher.
- Independently verify credentials.
- To verify authenticity of ollege degrees – call registrar’s office.
- To verify professional associations – check professional directory
- Is the person cited as an expert in the news or trade literature?
- Has the person published articles in trade literature or peer-reviewed publications?
Determine the Level of Objectivity: Does the source provide a balanced viewpoint?
- Examine the writing style. Is it trying to influence your opinion?
- Examine the advertising. Does it influence the content?
Lack of objectivity does not necessarily mean the source provides substandard information. A persuasive writer intends to win your favor. S/he might use good facts and analysis to do so.
Establish the Date of Publication: Is the information current at the time of publication?
- Examine creation and revision dates. Do not rely on dates provided by search engines.
- Review facts and analysis in historical context.
- Assess the writing for time-sensitive information. Be cautious about descriptive words such as always, never, all, none and most.
- Be aware of scripting that creates the current date (display source code to detect)
- Stay away from undated information whether it is presented as fact or commentary.
Verify What the Information Claims: Can you find two or more reliable sources that provide the same information?
- Use primary sources (sources that originate information) for facts.
- Secondary sources (sources that interpret facts) should provide cited references.
- Look for cited references.
Reliable sources meet all the quality criteria stated below.
Criteria for Quality in Information
Scope of Coverage
Scope of coverage refers to the extent to which a source explores a topic. Consider time periods, geography or jurisdiction and coverage of related or narrower topics.
Tip: When seeking information about the scope of coverage of a database, look for dates and information about excluded materials. Does the database cover the period of time of interest to you? Does it exclude select articles because of copyright licensing issues?
Authority refers to the expertise or recognized official status of a source. Consider the reputation of the author and publisher. When working with legal or government information, consider whether the source is the official provider of the information.
Tip: Authors recognized as experts amongst their peers are usually cited and reviewed in the literature. If a source claims official status (e.g., Singapore National Printers performs the role of the Singapore Government Printer), you should be able to verify the claim.
Objectivity is the bias or opinion expressed when a writer interprets or analyzes facts. Consider the use of persuasive language, the source’s presentation of other viewpoints, the reasons for providing the information and advertising.
Tip: All writing, except for the dissemination of pure facts, contains a certain amount of bias. Does the source provide a balanced point of view? Does the author want to influence change? Is the advertising influencing the content?
Accuracy describes information that is factually irrefutable and complete. Consider the editing and publishing policy of the source. Is it peer-reviewed? Does it fact-check before publishing?
Tip: You should be able to verify factually correct information. Are there two or more reliable sources that provide the same information?
Timeliness refers to information that is current at the time of publication. Consider publication, creation and revision dates. Beware of Web site scripting that automatically reflects the current day’s date on a page.
Tip: The information provided might have been current at the time it was published. Can you establish the publication date? Does the revision date cover changes in content or aesthetic revisions only?
Hopefully the above will help a budding online researcher obtain more accurate, credible and authoritative information while researching on the Internet.