Evaluating Web Sites
Since web sites can be written by pretty much anybody, you need to be especially critical when using them for research. In fact, your professor might tell you that you can't use them at all. But if using ordinary web sites (not library databases or articles) is an option, take some time to evaluate the sites you find.
Here are some things to consider:
Who created the web site, and why?
- Can you find the author or publisher? What are their credentials?
- Who is the intended audience?
- Is the information on the site objective, or does it have a bias toward one point of view?
- Are they trying to sell you something, convince you of something, or entertain you?
What's the quality of the site's information?
- How detailed is the site?
- Based on what you already know, does it seem accurate?
- Are any sources cited?
- How current is the information?
You can find a more detailed list of criteria for evaluating web sites on these university library sites at Cornell and Georgetown.
Your professor may tell you not to use Wikipedia at all. Or you might be able to use it as background information, but not cite it. Or maybe you can use it after all. But no matter what, you should be very careful to evaluate Wikipedia entries before basing any research on their content.
Why? Because Wikipedia suffers from the same credibility problems as the rest of the web -- but it often seems more authoritative. Anybody can write for Wikipedia, and not everyone is careful about citing sources, checking accuracy of information, or refraining from writing from their own point of view. You can use the criteria above to evaluate Wikipedia articles. And you can also watch this short, funny video about Wikipedia's reliability problems.
(Don't assume librarians all hate Wikipedia, by the way. It definitely has its uses. But citing it in research papers isn't usually one of those uses. However, if you want to understand the meaning of the final episode of Lost, I highly recommend it.)