Is That Website Really Reliable?



11 November 2014

No EE reader would ever utter the words "I saw it on the Interweb." But when we find online historical accounts that relate to our subject, are we appropriately critical? Or do we yield to the temptation to use the material, cite the site, and let our readers make their own judgments?

EE hopes you answered "Yes" to the first question and groaned at the second.  It's true, few of us like to be critical. Still, there's a good kind of criticism that all researchers have to apply to achieve any measure of reliability in their work. At websites, our critical analysis should start with these four questions:

  1. What entity publishes the website? What is the URL extension?  (Examples: .edu, .gov, .org, .bunk ?)
  2. Who created the content of the specific item we are considering? (Sam Schmoe or Catherine Credentialed?)
  3. Does the website or its article take an objective tone, giving both pros and cons of the issue without inflammatory or superlative words—or does its language reflect a partisan agenda or an otherwise biased viewpoint?
  4. Does the material provide references? If so, do those references (not the citations, but the underlying sources that are being cited) meet the standards we try to apply to all our historical research?

These four basic questions, if we ask them rigorously, can keep us out of a lot of devilment.


PHOTOCREDIT: "Laptop screen with a sign with the word - Risk," CanStockPhoto ( : downloaded 1 November 2014), uploaded 13 April 2014 by Gajus; used under license.

Jade's picture
Container and content

I think reminder and emphasis upon your point number 4 is worthwhile.

Partisan essays can be essentially factual, even where one dislikes an author's tone.  While supercilious or sarcastic elements may interfere with a message, they do not necessarily negate it.

The credentialed author can make just as significant or numerous mistakes as can the non-credentialed.  One does expect that one carefully applies one's knowledge to a problem or proof argument, but the non-credentialed can bring the same or more comprehensive knowledge to bear.  The proof is in the pudding.

We may bring some expectations to particular types of website URLs, but it is always the actual content that governs what we learn from a particular site.  Supposedly educational or governmental websites may bear as much junk as any other.

Good hunting,



Jade's picture

Oh, dear, "The proof is in the pudding" should have read "proof of the pudding is in the eating."  My brain may be overwhelmed by current FAN project.  Just goes to show that any researcher can be more or less unintelligible.


EE's picture
We know the feeling, Jade!

We know the feeling, Jade!

The Editor