Remember, anyone can publish on the Web without verification of facts or sources. Authorship is sometimes unknown, qualifications can be suspect, and responsibility difficult to determine. Goals and purposes of Web pages are also subject to scrutiny as they can act as a public soapbox for disseminating personal or institutional beliefs, opinions, and biases. Alexander and Tate suggest you should first identify the kind of Web page you have found. There are five types of pages you may be considering as sources for your research:
Advocacy Web Pages
An Advocacy Web page is one sponsored by an organization attempting to influence public opinion (that is, one trying to sell ideas). The URL address of the page frequently ends in .org (organization).
"Examples": National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, The National Right to Life Committee, the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party.
Business/Marketing Web Pages
A Business/Marketing Web Page is one sponsored by a commercial enterprise (usually it is a page that promotes or sells products). The URL address of the page frequently ends in .com (commercial).
"Examples": Adobe Systems, Inc., the Coca Cola Company, and numerous other large and small companies using the Web for business purposes.
News Web Pages
A News Web Page has a primary purpose of providing extremely current information. The URL address of the page usually ends in .com (commercial).
"Examples": USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, CNN.
Informational Web Pages
An Informational Web page is one that purposes to present factual information. The URL address frequently ends in .edu or .gov, as many of these pages are sponsored by educational institutions or government agencies.
"Examples": Dictionaries, thesauri, directories, transportation schedules, calendars of events, statistical data, and other factual information such as reports, presentations of research, or information about a topic.
Personal Home Pages
A Personal home page is a Web page that is published by an individual who may or may not be affiliated with a larger institution. The URL address of the page may have a variety of endings (including .com, .edu, etc.).
Questions to Ask About Web Pages
Criterion #1: AUTHORITY
- Is it clear what organization, company, or individual is sponsoring or responsible for the page?
- Is there a link to a page describing the goals or purpose of the organization? If it is a company, is there a link to a page where you can find out the nature of the company, who owns it, or what its products are?
- Is there a way of verifying legitimacy? That is, is there a phone number or postal address to contact for more information? (An email address is not enough). Is there a way of verifying the legitimacy of an individual? (Because it is difficult to verify the legitimacy of an individual, personal home pages may be a useful source for personal opinion, but use extreme caution when using them as a source for factual information).
- Is there a statement that the content of the page has the official approval of the company or organization?
- If it is an organization, is it clear whether this is a page from the national or local chapter of the organization?
- If it is a company, is there a way to determine the stability of the company?
- Is there a statement giving the organization or company name as copyright holder?
- For news pages:
- Is there a non-Web equivalent version of this material that would provide a way of verifying its legitimacy?
- If the page contains an individual article, do you know who wrote the article and what his or her qualifications are for writing on this topic?
- Is it clear who is ultimately responsible for the content of the material?
- For informational and individual pages:
- Is it clear who wrote the material and are the author's qualifications for writing on this topic clearly stated?
- If the material is protected by copyright, is the name of the copyright holder given?
Criterion #2: ACCURACY
- Are the sources for factual information clearly listed so they can be verified in another source? (If not, the page may still be useful to you as an example of the ideas of the organization, company, etc. but it is not useful as a source of factual information).
- Is the information free of grammatical, spelling, and other typographical errors? (These kinds of errors not only indicate a lack of quality control, but also can produce inaccurate information).
- If the page belongs to a company, does the page provide a link to outside sources such as product reviews or reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission that can be used to verify company claims?
- For news pages, are there editors monitoring the accuracy of the information being published?
- For informational pages: is it clear who has the ultimate responsibility for the accuracy of the content of the material?
- If there are charts or graphs containing statistical data, are the charts or graphs clearly labeled and easy to read?
Criterion #3: OBJECTIVITY
- Are the biases of the organization or individual clearly stated?
- If there is any advertising on the page, is it separate from the informational or opinion content?
- Is the company's motivation for the information clear?
- For news pages, are the editorials and opinion pieces clearly labeled?
- For informational pages: is the information provided as a public service?
- Is the information free of advertising?
Criterion #4: CURRENCY
- Are there dates on the page to indicate
- when the page was written, and/or
- when the page was last revised?
Criterion #5: COVERAGE
- Is there an indication that the page has been completed and is not still under construction?
- Is it clear what topics the page intends to address?
- Does the page succeed in addressing these topics or has something significant been left out?
- Is the point of view of the organization or company presented in a clear manner with well supported arguments?
- For a company:
- Does the page include an adequately detailed description of any product?
- Are all of the company's products described with an adequate level of detail?
- Is the same level of information provided for all sections or divisions of the company?
- For news pages:
- Is there a link to an informational page that describes the coverage of the source?
- If you are evaluating a newspaper page and there is a print equivalent, is there an indication of whether the Web coverage is more or less extensive than the print version?
- For informational pages:
- If there is a print equivalent to the Web page, is there a clear indication of whether the entire work is available on the Web?
- If the material is from a work with an expired copyright, has there been an effort to update the material to make it more current?
Useful resource: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/rheingold/detail?entry_id=42805