Evaluating Websites


19 May 2014

WWW-land is truly a wonderfully wacky world. We find gorgeous sites filled with garbage. We find tacky pages filled with Gospel Truth—or as close to it as any historical researcher can get. How do we ensure that our online efforts are healthy ones?

EE's basic rule is one you'll seldom find in other writing guides: Focus on the *information,* rather than the website. For each piece of information we feel is relevant we should ask:

  1. Is that information supported by evidence? If so, is it evidence of good quality?
  2. Is each assertion individually supported by evidence—or does the provider add a general bibliography pointing us to other sources? Practically speaking, the more attention an author pays to matching specific facts to specific sources, the more likely it is that pesky errors will have been caught and corrected.
  3. Is the material carefully written and proofed? Works that are riddled with typos provide good cause to question the care with which the material has been produced. Work that violates basic grammatical rules learned in the sixth grade provide good cause to question the author's commitment to producing reliable work.
  4. Does the material demonstrate bias or a lack of objectivity—or does it present a balanced perspective based on wide-ranging sources?

Beyond this, EE would endorse—but modify—the standard questions we find in many places:

  • Who is the author and what is the author's experience and credentials?
  • Is the website an official one or an academic site with an "edu" extension?

These last two considerations can matter, but it's easy to be bamboozled by credentials and resumes. No one is an expert on everything and some experts excel more at self-promotion than subject-matter. Official agencies can be influenced by official policies and legal hedges, not just scholarship. And, of course, "edu" extensions are used by more freshman students than professors!

Ultimately, our best protection is no. 1. Indeed, that should be our mantra: What's the evidence?


IMAGE SOURCE: "Internet1.jpg," Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AInternet1.jpg : accessed 15 May 2014), citing "By Rock1997 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons."