- Academic Research and Writing Tips / Tutorial

How Can I Tell a Good Internet Source from a Bad One?

No matter what your research topic, numerous Web sites exist to give you all sorts of information on it. Worldwide authorities on your topic can post their expertise, and with a click of the mouse (or actually two, I think), you can read it.

Internet Sources

There is an ancient Latin phrase, caveat emptor, that means "let the buyer beware." Since I have no idea how to says “reader” in Latin, pretend that it applies to your project. Because although countless worldwide scholars have their work accessible online, so does every nut who thinks he’s a scholar. You can find information on the latest developments in space exploration from authorities at NASA. But then again, you can also find "evidence" of life on other planets from a "renowned scholar" at the University of His Parents’ Basement. So you need to be careful which sites to cite.

Everyone who does research on line should be able to tell a good Web source from a bad one. False information - not necessarily obviously so to you, but clearly off-base to your professor - can send a good paper downhill. On the other hand, though, credible online information can give your research an extra edge. Companies often post their most engaging and cutting-edge discoveries online. You, too, can be on the forefront of insect reproduction. And so can your paper. But remember to caveat.

A good Internet source comes from a good place. If your paper is for a science class, find the government agency or organization that researches that field. There are organizations for every area of science you can think of. Space, earth, sea... you name it. If you are writing an English or history paper, your best bet is a University-sponsored site. These can be a bit harder to find. You will have to look around on the page for where the information originated. If the site is from an academic source, it will say so. If you are doing a business - or marketing-type paper, there are plenty of sources with the latest in knowledge. Just be sure to check their credentials, as well. Who is the company publicizing this information? Where do they get it?

No matter what you are doing, no matter what your subject, be certain that the person who wrote the information has actual, reputable credentials. The best internet sources, of course, are those that come from online academic journals or academic databases. However, these aren’t always easy to find or access. Many require passwords or payment. Don't be lured. Your own school most likely has an online database you can use, such as Lexis-Nexis, and if not, your librarian can help you find a good one. Your librarian is actually an excellent source for credible online sources. The downside is that these usually require a bit more work and are generally more difficult reading than the online articles that are released to be read by the general public.

I will bet that your next question will be about how to tell what a bad source looks like. The bad ones are actually harder to define, because there are so many out there. I'd like to say that a bad source is anything that isn’t a good source, but then I would probably get a lot of angry letters. It is true, though. Anything that doesn’t have credentials (which means, written by someone with either an academic or professional background) is not a good source to use. Beware of sites that advertise "reader reviews" or "reader contributions"; many of these websites have "reviews" of famous poems or stories that are written by... well, anyone who has read them. Bottom line? If you intend to cite authority, make sure that person actually is an authority.

Research on the Internet can save your life or get you a glowing F. You needn’t fear it, however; simply beware of the sites you use and check for credentials, and you will be well set up for some extra, low-effort sources.