Much of the discussion about the relative value of printed and electronic, especially Internet, sources revolves around the issue of reliability. When it comes to libraries, the issue is more or less clear. Libraries keep books, journals, and other publications that usually undergo a rigorous pre and post-publication review process. It is a fairly safe bet that your campus library contains very few or no materials which are blatantly unreliable or false, unless those materials are kept there precisely to demonstrate their unreliability and falsehood. As a faculty member, I am sometimes asked by my university librarians to recommend titles in my academic field which, I feel, our university library should have. Of course, my opinion, as well as the opinions of my colleagues, do not provide a one-hundred-percent guarantee against errors and inaccurate facts, we use our experience and knowledge in the field to recommend certain titles and omit certain others. These faculty recommendations are the last stage in the long process before a publication gets to a campus library. Before that, every book, journal article, or other material undergoes a stringent review from the publisher’s editors and other readers.
And while researchers still need to use sound judgment in deciding which library sources to use in their project, the issue is usually one of relevance and suitability for a specific research project and specific research questions rather than one of whether the information presented in the source is truthful or not.
The same is true of some electronic sources. Databases and other research sources, as well as various online research websites which accompany many of contemporary writing textbooks, for example, are subject to the same strict review process as their printed counterparts. Information contained in specialized academic and professional databases is also screened for reliability and correctness.
If, as we have established, most of the materials which you are likely to come across in your campus library are generally trustworthy, then your task as a researcher is to determine the appropriateness of the information which these books, journals, and other materials contain, for your particular research project. It is a simple question, really: will my research sources help me answer the research questions that I am posing in my project? Will they help me learn as much as I can about my topic and create a rhetorically effective and interesting text for my readers?
Consider the following example. Recently, the topic of the connection between certain anti-depressant drugs and suicidal tendencies among teenagers that take those drugs has received a lot of coverage in the media. Suppose that you are interested in researching this topic further. Suppose also that you want not only to give statistical information about the problem in your paper, but also to study first-hand accounts of the people, who have been negatively affected by the anti-depressants. When you come to your campus library, you have no trouble locating the latest reports and studies that give you a general overview of your topic, including rates of suicidal behavior in teenagers who took the drugs, tabulated data on the exact relationships between the dosage of the drugs and the changes in the patients’ moods, and so on. All this may be useful information, and there is a good chance that, as a writer, you will still find a way to use it in your paper. You could, for example, provide the summary of the statistics in order to introduce the topic to your readers.
However, this information does not fulfill your research purpose completely. You set out to find out, first-hand, what it is like to be a teenager whose body and mind are affected by the anti-depressants, yet the printed materials that you have found so far offer no such insight. They fulfill your goal only partially. To find such first-hand accounts, then, you will either have to keep looking in the library or to conduct interviews with the people who have affected by these drugs, if you can locate such people.
Suitability of Sources
Determine how suitable a particular source is for your current research project. To do this, consider the following factors:
- Scope: What topics and subtopics does the source cover? Is it a general overview of your subject or it is a specialized resource?
- Audience: Who is the intended audience for the text? If the text itself is too basic or too specialized, it may not match the expectations and needs of your own target audience.
- Timeliness: When was the source published? Does it represent the latest information, theories, and views on the subject? Bear in mind, though, that if you are conducting a historical investigation, you will probably need to consult older materials, too.
What the credentials of the author or authors of the sources? This may be particularly important when you use Internet sources since a lot of materials by various authors are posted online. As a part of your evaluation of the source’s authority, you should also pay attention to the kinds of external sources that were used during its creation. Look through the bibliography or list of works cited attached to the text. Not only will it help you determine how reliable and suitable the source is, but it may also provide you with further leads for your own research. Try asking the above questions of any source you are using for a research project you are currently conducting.
Reliability of Internet Sources
Charles Lowe, the author of the essay “The Internet Can be a Wonderful Place, But…,” offers the following opinion of the importance of the Internet as a research source for contemporary researchers:
“To a generation raised in the electronic media culture, the Internet is an environment where you feel more comfortable, more at home than the antiquated libraries and research arenas of the pre-electronic, print culture. To you, instructors just don’t get it when they advise against using the Internet for research or require the bulk of the sources for a research paper to come from the library” (129-130).
Indeed, the Internet has become the main source of information not only for college students, but also for a lot of people outside of the academe. And while I do not advise you to stay away from the Internet when researching and I generally do not require my own students to use primarily printed sources, I do know that working with Internet sources places additional demands on the researcher and the writer.
Because much of the Internet is a democratic, open space, and because anyone with a computer can post materials online, evaluating online sources is not always easy. A surprisingly large number of people believe much of the information on the Internet, even if this information is blatantly misleading or if its authors have a self-serving agenda. In the chapter of this book dedicated to research and writing in academic disciplines, we discussed how authority of a text can influence its reception by the readers. I think many students uncritically accept information they find on the internet because some of the sites on which this information appears look and sound very authoritative. Used to believing the published word, inexperienced writers often fall for such information as legitimate research data.
So, what are some of strategies you can use to determine that reliability? The key to successful evaluation of Internet research sources, as any other research sources, is application of your critical reading and thinking skills. In order to determine the reliability of every source, including online sources, it is generally useful to conduct a basic rhetorical analysis of that source. When deciding whether to use a particular website as a research source, every writer should ask and answer the following questions:
- Who is the author (or, authors) of the website and the materials presented on it?
- What is known about the site’s author or authors and its publishers and their agendas and goals?
- What is the purpose of the website?
- Who is the target audience of the website
- How do the writing style and the design of the website contribute to (or detract from) its meaning?