By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
Computer and digital technology has increased at an astounding rate within the last several decades. With the advent of various informational Internet resources such as social media, online articles, books and so forth many people purport to do thorough research, but lack the understanding of what research means. The advent of search engines has given everyone the illusion that they have done research and are experts on a particular topic. In reality, people simply pull information from unreliable sources, thinking that they have researched a topic thoroughly. What makes a source not reliable? What makes certain information unreliable and untrustworthy? This article will offer information and resources to help people be able to differentiate between what is a valid source of knowledge and what is not.
What is research?
Research should involve a thorough reading and analysis of an adequate number of sources on a given subject. One does not have to have a college degree to do research. But the proper time should be devoted in order to draw valid conclusions that can be held up as reliable research. As a side note, some information cannot be obtained without proper research methodologies and even research tools. Examples of this is research in the natural sciences such as biology, chemistry or physics, or in the social sciences in areas such as history, economics or sociology. With the hard sciences one must conduct countless experiments to arrive at certain conclusions that cannot be obtained by simply reading a lot of Internet articles and watching videos. Furthermore, to do valid historical work one must study many reliable primary sources or conduct countless interviews with people who were present during a certain time period the historian is studying. So in this way, valid natural or social science experiments cannot be replaced by reading a few articles on the Internet. At the very least, one can read the work of experts who have devoted their life to research in a particular subject. Teachers in K-12 schools often have not spent their lives conducting research in their field (Of course there are many exceptions to this). Even though some teachers may not be researchers, they have devoted their lives to studying, reading and mastering their content. In this way, a middle school science teacher (for example) can read thoroughly within a certain discipline and gain a wide enough knowledge base on a topic to become a reliable source of information and somewhat of an expert. The knowledge they have gained was achieved through much time and effort. There is no shortcut for conducting research on a topic thoroughly and adequately. In contemporary times, when many individuals do research, their primary means of gathering information is through the Internet. The Internet can be a great resource for gathering information, problems arise when people cannot differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources. Below are some key components that one should consider when trying to verify if an online source is credible.
How to Find Reliable Information on the Internet
1) Identify the source of the information and determine whether it is reliable and credible.
A good starting point for this is to identify the name of the writer and or the organization from which the source was derived. Is the source reputable and reliable? Is the person or organization a respected authority on the subject matter? What makes a person or organization an authority on a particular topic? It has become very easy to publish information on the Internet and as a result there are many people purporting to be an expert in a particular field that are not qualified to write on that topic. A good way to understand the danger of this is to liken it to public school teachers teaching subjects outside of their certification in order to remedy teacher shortages. For example, one might find a teacher certified in social studies teaching high school math. In this cases, students are not getting the proper instruction in math. In the same way, there is a lot information on the Internet written by individuals that have no expertise in the particular content in which they are writing about. For example, many people that dispute climate change and global warming are not scientists and often rely on political rhetoric to support their claims. Scientists who do work in climate change have devoted their entire lives to research in that area, often holding undergraduate and several graduate degrees in subjects like geology and earth science. When a person is thought to be a well-known and respected expert in a certain field, they have a proven track record of careful study and research and are validated by reputable institutions that are known for producing reliable research. Often non-experts will spend just a few days or weeks “researching” climate change, in an effort to “dispute” data that is backed by decades of careful research. One does not have to have a Ph.D. to understand and challenge mainstream scientific knowledge, but time and energy devoted to research cannot be bypassed.
2) Checking sources for validity against other reliable sources.
It is important when doing research on the Internet to check the provided information against other reliable sources to verify accuracy. For example, if every reputable source reports that cigarette smoking causes cancer and one source says otherwise, the lone source should be questioned until further notice because it has no credibility or way to verify its information. When checking facts and data for accuracy provided in an Internet source one should look for reliable and trusted sources. These might include academic articles, books, universities, museums, mainline reputable religious organizations, government agencies and academic associations. Libraries, universities and professional organizations usually provide reliable information. There is a growing public mistrust of long established institutions that has added to the level of uncertainty about knowledge. But it is important to know that institutions have credibility for good reason. Their history, information and knowledge base is backed by hard work, and long held traditions.
3) Is the information presented in a biased way?
When one is reading an article or any information on the internet it is important to determine if that information has a specific agenda or goal in mind. What is the author’s agenda? Does the author or organization have a particular religious, sociological or political bent? These factors determine the validity of an information source. For example, oftentimes newspapers will feature op-ed pieces in which the author states up front that the article is largely based on their personal views. Therefore, when one reads an op-ed piece, they understand going into the article that it will be slanted to the right or left or toward a certain worldview. The article is not be completely useless, but the reader should realize they have to sort through the bias and decided what information is helpful to them in their research. The reader should also search for possible bias in the information presented (Could be political, sociological, religious bias, or other ideas drawn from a particular worldview) and or even claims made that seem unrealistic or unreasonable with no evidence to back it up.
4) Search for citations that support the claims made by the author or organization.
Most articles or information on the web will provide a link to do further research on the topic or to back claims made. When this information is not adequately provided one can assume that the source is not reputable. In addition, a site can have many citations but the sources may not be credible or reliable sources. Health and fitness writer Robin Reichert states the following about the topic reliable sources. Readers should “follow the links provided” in the article to “verify that the citations in fact support the writer’s claims. Look for at least two other credible citations to support the information.” Furthermore, readers should “always follow-up on citations that the writer provides to ensure that the assertions are supported by other sources.”
It is also important to note that the end designation of a website can help determine credibility. When websites end in “.com” they are often are for profit organizations and trying to sell a product or service. When one comes across a site that ends in “.org” they are often non-profit organizations and thus have a particular social cause they are trying to advance or advocate for. Government agency websites always end in “.gov” while educational institutions end in “.edu.” Government agencies, educational institutions or non-profits generally offer reliable and trustworthy information. Teachers in middle and high schools attempt should spend more time having students do research papers as it teaches students the value of citing valid sources. The projects often call for proper citations using one of the various styles of citation with the most popular being APA, MLA and Chicago.
How to Verify if a Source is Credible on the Internet
Below I have provided a number of resources for our average internet researchers, students and teachers. The idea of truth and valid, reliable resources are being challenged because people are unsure as to what information is valid and what is not. The links below offer a number of resources that can further offer tools to help to understand how to do research properly.
Resources and References
A Comprehensive Guide to APA Citations and Format
EasyBib Guide to Citing and Writing in APA Format
MLA General Format
Formatting a Research Paper
EasyBib Guide to MLA 8 Format
Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition
Evaluating Internet Resources
Check It Out: Verifying Information and Sources in News Coverage
How to Do Research: A Step-By-Step Guide: Get Started
How can I tell if a website is credible?
Detecting Fake News at its Source: Machine learning system aims to determine if an information outlet is accurate or biased.
What does “research” mean and are you doing it?
By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.