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Online Research: You Don’t Always Get What You Want

Jim Hitchner offers some very sound advice in his July 2011 email newsletter titled “Do You Know?” In this particular issue, he addresses whether or not the information on the Internet is reliable and whether it can – or should – be used when obtaining company information from outside sources.

In the article, he discusses how to evaluate the data to see if it is reliable or not. He also offers these questions from the Georgetown University Library. Ask these the next time you are considering information found online:

  • Is the name of the author/creator on the page?
  • Are his/her credentials listed (occupation, years of experience, position or education)?
  • Is the author qualified to write on the given topic?  Why?
  • Is there contact information provided?
  • Is the author with an organization?  If so, does the organization support or sponsor the page?  Does the author’s affiliation with an institution or organization appear to bias the information?  Does the content of the page have the official approval of the institution, organization, or company?  Can you find more information about the organization?
  • Is the information covered fact, opinion, or propaganda?
  • Is the author’s point-of-view objective and impartial using language free of emotion-rousing words and bias?
  • Are the sources for factual information clearly listed so that the information can be verified?
  • Is it clear who has the ultimate responsibility for the accuracy of the content of the material?
  • Can you verify any of the information in independent sources or from your own knowledge?
  • Is the information free of grammatical, spelling, or typographical errors?
  • Does the information appear to be valid and well-researched, or is it unsupported by evidence?
  • Are quotes and other strong assertions backed by sources that you could check through other means?
  • Is there a non-Web equivalent of this material that would provide a way of verifying its legitimacy?
  • If timeliness of the information is important, is it kept up-to-date?
  • Is there an indication of when the site was last updated?
  • If the site contains links, are they current, or have they become dead ends?
  • What kinds of sources are linked?

Hitchner recommends that everyone carefully examine each website he visits with a skeptical eye and to always document sources when verifying independent data. Sounds like good advice!


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