What Makes Valid Research? How to Verify if a Source is Credible on the Internet


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?


  1. There are people in the world who are unaware of the process of finding reliable sources. In today’s society, pretty much anything can be put on the internet; but not everything that is on the internet is valid. This article is to help individuals understand how to identify the fake, irrelevant, and invalid information from the valid ones. I feel that everyone should be able to learn these skills, because at some point in one’s life they will come across an assignment that requires research.

  2. The title alone sparks many questions for me and personally triggers a special kind of anxiety that I discovered only recently since starting college- that there is nothing you can believe with unwavering 100% trust. Once having read the title I was flooded with the following questions: Why is reliable information so hard to find? Can we even trust “scholarly” evidence, research, studies or journals? And if so, how do you know? Isn’t it true that scholarly or academic research or literature can be corrupted just as easily as the media? Why is scholarly evidence so inaccessible? It is hard to find, often extremely difficult to interpret, lengthy and can also be expensive! The information given in this article is somewhat helpful but doesn’t ease the concern of the reliability of information, at least in my opinion. If I am going to mold and shape what I value and believe in based on what I research, which happens subconsciously whether you want it to or not, reliability should be of utmost importance.

  3. I found this particular article extremely helpful. As a science major we often write research papers. Most of these papers are theoretical topics, or topics that we can not have a physical experiment. This makes us have to rely on the work of scientist who can or have done the experiment. Knowing if it is a credible source can be important because we cannot check the data ourselves.

  4. Understating not everything posted on the internet is true research is a lesson many people need to learn. Often even sources that appear trustworthy may present untrue or biased information. The five tips listed in the article are ways all people can check the validity of their sources, whether they are collecting information for an essay or merely because they are interested in a topic. The last tip listed that explains the differences between .com, .org, etc. is an extremely easy method to use, and certain domain endings can even be specified in google searches.

  5. This article serves as a great reminder for me to make sure that the information I am getting is valid and reliable, regardless of whether or not it is for school. I think it is also a great reminder for anyone out there who tries to debate different topics, regardless of the sides. It is extremely important to get your information from multiple sources and be well informed first. The 4 points in this article about what to consider when trying to verify if a source is credible would also be useful in my classroom. They are 4 simple reminders that I can teach to my students when they are doing research.

  6. I found this article very helpful as I have a couple classes that have projects that involve research. When you have to do research that may be done using more than scholarly articles, it can be tricky to find good websites with valuable information. I liked how this article included how to do research and how to look for the author’s name and the sources they used to find their information. I will use this information in my future work, and be more careful when choosing sources and making sure they are credible.

  7. Article is very vital and important if you question how you cite sources. there is great tips and information stated to help guide you to the correct websites so you can use a reliable and credible source. The internet is not a trusting place and a lot of people fail to see that and automatically believe everything they find on the internet and I think that why this has become so important.

  8. This article does a great job explaining how to do better about finding credible sources when researching different information. I would have to agree with students needing to do more research and learning how to find more valid information. So often you find everyone using the first site they find on google and using it as bible. The problem is, when students trust things just because it’s on the internet and don’t look at the credibility behind the information they find, students are making their own biases and judgements based on uncreditable information. It’s an endless cycle of misinformation that causes prejudices.

  9. This article demonstrates what it means to find good research material. As a college student, I know the importance of good, reliable sources for my own work, but thos article helps me have an advantage as to how to detect what is considered reliable versus what is not. I also find it incredibly important that it is noted that one should be cautious of bias. Often times in heated arguments or debates, people will use an article or personal experience to prove their point when it is completely biased. This article explains why that can be a problem. As a future educator, I find this article to be very knowledgable, helpful, and academically sound research as well!

  10. I really like how this article walks you through steps on how to find if a source really has reliable information. You have to identify the source and decide if it is written by someone with “authority on the subject matter”. You can compare the information to a source that you already know is reliable to see if it is accurate. You also need to check if the information is presented in a biased way by decided whether the information is unrealistic or if there is evidence to back it up. Another good way to check a source is to look for further citations that back up their claims. It is important to base your research on credible resources in order to share accurate and appropriate information.

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