Thinking Critically About Information


How Can You Sort the Junk from the Good Stuff
on the "Public" Internet--and Everywhere?

Critical thinking is THE most important skill you will learn in college. To be educated means finding and weighing information and then using it to think for yourself. You must learn to sharpen your critical antennae and develop a healthy skepticism about all information from television, books, magazines, newspapers, teachers, even textbooks and academic journals, but especially information found on the Internet. Here are a few guidelines that might help you decide whether the information you find on the Web is the kind of information you want to base your beliefs and your decisions on.

"Make no mistake, the search engine companies are not in the business of creating relevant and accurate Web search results. Google is an advertising firm--they all are. Their business is the conversion of search traffic into advertising revenue. This conversion is improved if a search engine is more popular, but good search results are the bait, not the big catch." Pace, Andrew K. "Technically Speaking: The Business of Search Engines." American Libraries May 2004 35.5: 60+. Infotrac Expanded Academic ASAP

Criteria for Evaluating Websites

A. Authority of the source

1. What DOMAIN is the webpage coming from?
.edu--Is it on the official website of the school? Does it belongs to a faculty member (is it a personal or teaching page) or a student or a staff member? Watch for a tilde ~ or a percent sign % after the domain. This often indicates an individual's webpage being served from a university computer.
--federal government? United States. Might it be politically tinted?
.org---not-for-profit organization. What is the group's ideology or common interest? Do they have any reason to be objective?
.com--commercial vendor? Is it sponsored by a commercial vendor? Paid for with advertising?
.net--This can be any individual who can afford to pay for server space? ISP itself? Individual? Not-very-organized group?More Info:

2. Do you trust the person or webpage that sent you there? Was it a search engine, an unsolicited email, your close friend, your doctor, your teacher, a textbook? The more you trust the source, the less you have to spend time evaluating its quality.

3. Do you recognise the author, the institution, the entity on whose server the page resides? Don't assume that because the initial url looks authentic that the site is the "official" one. Is the url trying to trick you like this "redirect" link? 
or this one:

4. Can you find out more about the author from exploring the web site itself? (If not, why not?) Read critically the "About us," " Mission," or "Who we are" links. Is some kind of bias implied? (See B2 below.) Does someone take clear responsibility for the content of the page? Are those responsible actually named and their credentials given? If there isn't a link that explains the reason for and author of the website--do not use it! What about this one: . More Info:

You can use Domain Registration records to find out who registered this URL. It is often very interesting to see who is "bankrolling" the website.
edu domains:
Exercise: Who is really responsible for this website?

B. Bias or Accuracy and Objectivity

1. What is the purpose of this information? The underlying purpose of a website can affect its objectivity.

  • Is it to make money, support a political party, proselytize, advertise, sell, humor, satire, parody(35), opinion, propaganda, advocacy, missionary zeal, teenage hijinks, other?
  • Or is it for public service, reference, news, education, published academic research, law/legislation, data, statistics?
  • Or some mixture of both?

2. Is any sort of bias evident? esp. overwrought and unbalanced language claiming absolute truth without verifiable data or is there scholarly acknowledgment of others opinions, controversies or theories; acknowledgment of limitation and documentation of verifiable sources. See Indicators of propaganda vs scholarly research

3. Can you verify the information in another reputable source? Respectable journalists always verify information by finding another source of the same information. Can you do that too? Try this site to see what happens if you don't verify thoroughly!

4. Is the information blatant advertising, or is the website more subtle, yet put out by a entity that derives money or goodwill from this kind of publicity? Try this website:

5. Does the author display knowledge of related sources? Is there a believable bibliography or footnotes supporting the information given?

6. Is quality evident through factors like: design, presentation, freedom from spelling errors, typos, bad links, etc. Beautiful webpages are not always the most accurate, but badly done pages are especially suspect!

Exercise: Evaluate this website for bias.

C. Currency and Coverage and Continuity

1. Is the document manually or automatically updated? A little html code can change the date everyday without anyone updating it. See the very top of this page.

2. Does the webpage state when it was last revised? Might be ok for history, but what about medical, legal or political information--outdated information can be wrong information.

3. Is there an indication of whether it is only part of something else, an excerpt, or the entirety of a work. Half a loaf of information is not better than none: think medical trials, court cases, poems, stories, essays.

4. Is this page likely to disappear tomorrow? All webpages are likely to disappear sometime! You need to be able to prove that this page existed. Have you printed or downloaded the pages so you can prove the existence of these pages if called upon to do so? You are responsible for proving that your sources existed!

Exercise: When was this page last updated? Plagiarism for Students

D. Documentation and Plagiarism

1. Do you know how to document online sources according to the style guide required by your instructor or your discipline? Some library databases will help you format articles according to the basic style guides, e.g. EBSCO and InfoTrac. Explore the pages you find to see if they will help you do this.

  • When using the EBSCO databases, set the "preference to your required style. Save the brief citation and look at resulting screen. It won't be perfect. But EBSCO gives you a link to a style guide so you can manually fix the citation.

  • Bedford/St. Martin Sample Paper and Documentation

  • KnightCite from Calvin College Library.

  • Landmark's Citation Machine. This will get you close, but it is never totally correct. You must check the citation carefully.

  • Download Zotero, the Firefox extension for Macintosh, and learn how to use it.

  • Call or come to the Reference Desk for help.

2. Taking information off a website, even paraphrasing a webpage, without citing the source is plagiarism.

3. Email, chat and texting info. must also be cited in your paper.

4. Will your instructor let you run your paper through Turnitin before final submission? [You will need an account number from your instructor.]

5. Using a free term paper or using one bought on the web is plagiarism. Complaining about the quality of a paper you took or bought from a diploma mill is futile! Who are you going to sue?

E. Efficiency. What can you do to make your results better? --And save time, too!

1. Before you begin searching for information, read your assignment three times! Don't spend time evaluating webpages if your assignment says use scholarly or academically respectable information--go first to the library databases where you are more likely to find better information more quickly.

2. If you decide that you CAN use Internet sites and before you start searching, think about what kind of information you are looking for. Different kinds of information come from different kinds of places. The kind of information you need may determine where you begin your search.

Do you need:

3. Use the "Advanced" searches in Google, Yahoo ( you must do a simple search before the Advanced option becomes available in Yahoo), and to get better results. (Click here to see how to use Google Advanced or Yahoo Advanced Search or to limit to a specific domain)

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  Last updated: 5/29/09. js