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Criteria for Critical Evaluation of Information on the Internet

Once a sufficient quantity of information has been gathered from the Internet as a result of:

  1. identifying and accessing the appropriate data repositories, i.e., databases and/or web sites,
  2. conducting comprehensive searches by constructing queries that are appropriate for the topic's breadth and depth, and
  3. preliminarily organized and ranked according to source, topic structure, or chronology; the next step is to
  4. 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!

Formats for citation and style sheets are available online.

Evaluating Information Content on the Internet:

The criteria for critically evaluating information content on the Internet can be generally classified by the information's source's:

Purpose

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.
 
Scope
 
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.
 
Currency
 
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.
 
Authority
 
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.
 
Bibliography
 
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.
 
Objectivity
 
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).
 
Accuracy
 
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 Internet:

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
 
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 index.
 
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 available.
 
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 standards.
 
Esthetics
 
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.
 
Style
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.
 
Uniqueness
 
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 Internet:

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
 
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.
 
Stability
 
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
 
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.

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