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Criteria for Critical Evaluation of Information on the
Once a sufficient quantity of information has been gathered from the Internet as a
- identifying and accessing the appropriate data repositories, i.e., databases and/or web
- conducting comprehensive searches by constructing queries that are appropriate for the
topic's breadth and depth, and
- preliminarily organized and ranked according to source, topic structure, or chronology;
the next step is to
- critically evaluate each information resource.
Critical evaluation is the quality control aspect of information literacy, representing
a self-directed questioning and challenging process that calls upon the searcher's
cognitive skills and experience to select, weight, and apply appropriate criteria to the
information retrieved relative to the needs of the topic.
Although it is difficult to construct a set of general criteria that are applicable in
all cases, we can begin by evaluating the data we collect with respect to its:
When using information acquired in searches, it is essential to
always cite the information sources so that proper credit is given to authors, and so that
subsequent searchers can find additional information by retracing the information pathway
you've forged. Failure to cite is plagiarism!
for citation and style sheets are available online.
Evaluating Information Content on the
The criteria for critically evaluating information content
on the Internet can be generally classified by the information's source's:
- A researcher should begin by determining whether or not the author's purpose in
publishing the information is stated or self evident; and if it has been fulfilled. It is
necessary to determine whether the source delivers facts, opinion, or propaganda. The
purpose can be elaborated into several types; vanity publications (like many personal web
pages), an advocacy sites (created to espouse a particular viewpoint), or data sources
(containing primary or secondary information). A primary source presents relevant
information in its text or other content, and usually relies on external links as pointers
to referent or explicatory material. Secondary sources are often lists of external links;
they are useful for collating and consolidating information, like a print index.
- Intended Audience
- It is important to understand what audience is being addressed by the author, and
whether the level of information matches the needs of the intended audience. An article
about post-transnational changes in hormonal regulation from a scientific journal such as
the Journal of Biological Chemistry is not appropriate for a sixth grade teacher's lecture
on adolescent development. Often, an important consideration is how potentially offensive
material is handled.
- The breadth and depth of coverage related to the needs dictated by the topic is another
important consideration. It varies, depending on the perspective needed. For example,
perhaps a general survey consisting of multiple related topics (broad and shallow) is
required for a comprehensive overview or history of a subject is required, e.g. cell
anatomy. On the other hand, a focused analysis (narrow and deep) of a topic may be
required to determine the outcome of changing a single variable, e.g. the function of the
ras gene in regulating signal transfer in human platelets. Information that is appropriate
to the context should be selected.
- One advantage of online information relative to the ease with which it is updated is
currency. Currency can be thought of as the "freshness" of information, and is a
desirable characteristic for statistics, news, and other present-context material.
Historical material restricted to a particular period doesn't require as frequent updating
as state-of-the-art information, and can be regarded in a different light. In general, the
latest information is the most valuable. Therefore, the date of publication should be
included somewhere in the content (i.e., in a database date of publication field or
printed somewhere on a web page). A companion to currency is the frequency of update,
which tells how often new information is added to the source, and whether or not this is
done on a regular basis. A further consideration is the extent to which updating of
content is done. Sources that don't date their content, don't update frequently, or update
regularly must be regarded as questionable.
- The first test of authority is a named author(s) or editors who accept
responsibility for the content of the source. Authors should be named, and means of
contacting them should be available, so that clarifications or corrections can be
addressed. The author's credibility can be evaluated by examining other publications he's
authored, or reviews of the works. The author's reputation must be considered.
- It is important to judge the intrinsic value of an information source. The presence or
absence of a bibliography that names and cites the sources of information found in the
work is another criterion for evaluation. In the absence of a bibliography, the work must
be considered either a primary source by an authority, or opinion. The bibliography should
give a complete listing of all sources used in the work, so that they can be verified.
Peer review is a screening process that filters works of questionable content or
authority, and should generally be considered as being a positive attribute.
- It is important to identify any biases that the author(s) or editor(s) of an information
source might possess. If there are sponsoring agencies, they should be named and
reputable. Any apparent conflicts of interest should be identified. An important
consideration with web pages is the presence of advertising. Ideally, objective material
is preferred, but equally valuable material that is slanted should not be ignored, but
evaluated in light of the bias. Historical accounts often have a definite bias (i.e., the
settling of the American West; settlers' accounts versus Native Americans' accounts).
- The importance of accuracy cannot be overstated. When possible, information should be
cross-checked to verify its accuracy. The source should not only be reliable, but
error-free. Obvious inaccuracies, misspellings, and poor grammar often (but not always)
indicate a lack of careful authorship. With respect to web pages, links from the source
should be relevant and appropriate. The subject should be covered comprehensively within
the intended scope (i.e., completely). There should be no question as to whether the
information presented is factual, opinion, or interpretation of facts.
Evaluating Information Structure on the
An important consideration relating to the critical evaluation of information is the
structure of the vessel that conveys the content. Broad criteria for evaluating
information structure can be applied to information sources with respect to their:
- Design is a concept that covers the usability characteristics of
an information source. When referring to a database, it could refer to the content being
broken up into specific fields that have been indexed to maximize search capability.
Design is a criterion that surfaces frequently with regard to web pages and web sites. The
pages should be properly linked externally and internally to facilitate navigation. There
should not be any broken links. The design should be appropriate to the content, and
maximize utility. Files and graphics should be of a size that allows them to be loaded
quickly. the design should be based upon an easily-grasped hierarchy or logic. The use of
frames in the web site should not result in the user becoming lost, or take up valuable
screen area. When possible, "meta" fields should be placed in the web pages'
header fields to facilitate searching and identification by web search engines and
indexing "bots." Opportunities for interactivity should be available where
appropriate (i.e., forms, text boxes, check boxes, and radio buttons). A text version
should be offered to those whose browser doesn't meet the maximum site requirements. All
instructions should be clear. Ideally, large sites should have their own search engine or
- Software Requirements
- Browser specific sites or those using proprietary or nonstandard
HTML should clearly identify requirements and offer alternatives. Java or plug-ins should
not be included if they impede access to the content or cause crashes for users who may
have different software platforms. Content (not necessarily everything) should be
accessible to text-only browsers like Lynx. Requirements should be clearly stated. Plug-in
and multimedia requirements should be identified, and links to download them made
- Hardware Requirements
- The users' primary method of accessing the site should be
considered. If the site is designed for network access primarily, then the greater
bandwidth of that medium can be employed. If dialup modem is the primary means of access,
then the site should conform to those standards. Although multimedia hardware such as
graphics accelerators, better graphics cards, and sound cards are now more commonplace,
site hardware requirements should be clearly identified and conform to generally-used
- It is desirable that web pages and web sites should have pleasing
esthetic qualities. It is pleasing to find sites that are conceptually exciting or
artistic. However, this is not the defining consideration- Content rules!!! Web sites and
pages should be uncluttered and easy to read. The features of the site should not be
distracting. Toolbars, icons, graphics, and other visual elements should be functional,
not merely decorative. Only content represented as art should serve its own purpose.
- A measure of the style of a web site or web page is the quality of
the writing. Poor spelling, grammar, and syntax detract from a site's informational value,
and call its authority into question. Redundancies are another stylistic error. A good
test is whether or not the site's style enhances or detracts from its information value.
- The originality and creativity of a source often reflect its value to users, and a good
test is consider whether or not the source contributes new insights or knowledge. It is
often helpful to ask whether or not the source being used is the best one for the purpose.
Evaluating Information Accessibility on
The accessibility of the information on the Internet is an
important criterion, and an issue in itself that is tied to many larger issues with legal
and commercial ramifications (e.g. pornography, free speech, digital identification,
copyright, legality of online contacts, and secure financial transactions). The importance
of accessibility at the user level involves direct elemental access to information, and
general criteria include:
- Restrictions generally cover the availability of the site. Many
sites require that users obtain a login ID and password. usually, the only information
required is an email address, but many commercial sites require additional information
that is often used for demographics or marketing purposes. Many people are reluctant to
lose control of personal information, so how this information is to be used should always
be kept in mind. Cost is another restriction that is frequently encountered. Many sites
require a registration fee, or enrollment in an organization prior to granting access.
Often sites require subscription to a print version of the work before allowing access.
- If the server for the site is being over-utilized, it may
frequently crash at inopportune times. If the site's bandwidth is inadequate for the
amount of traffic that it generates, accessibility is characterized by long load times or
failure to load. As noted previously, large graphic files or pages, Java applets, or
plug-ins may lead to crashes.
- Security is another important consideration, especially in cases
where online financial transactions are required or personal information is exchanged.
Security is also an issue related to copyright interpretations. It is important to know
when transmissions are secure and when they are not. Generally, browsers relate this
information. It can also be accessed through the page's properties. Secure URLs (uniform
resource locators-the WWW "address" of a page) generally begin with https://
rather than http://, and most browsers use a security icon, typically a closed padlock to
indicate a secure page. Further information can be obtained by right-clicking the
page and selecting Properties or security certificate information.