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. This article was very eye opening about sources for me. I know this is a very important subject for students because we have to write papers, we need to be able to tell if we can be able to use sources in our paper. This will be very helpful and I will use this to double check my sources. This would also help the high school students who are learning to use sources to write papers.

  2. Prior to reading this article, I had no idea about all of the unseen issues with using the internet; not just for research but in general. As many of us know, today we rely on the internet as our primary source for news, social media and even educational tools. As a first year college student, well I’m on my 2nd degree after being out of school for almost 20 years, the information provided in this article will certainly enable me to be more careful and aware of the websites that I refer to for various things, especially schoolwork. I guess I was naive in thinking that if there was a website dedicated to a specific topic, it would have to be valid, right? There’s an author listed and a source, so why wouldn’t it be? Well, now I realize that just like other avenues of media, even websites can be made up and full of false information. Thanks again to Dr. Childs for this insightful information. If not already, can you write an article on the dark web which I just recently learned about? I thought the dark web was just something made up in the movies!

  3. The information shared in this article should be general knowledge and given to everyone in the general population. How many people receive their news from social media or on their hand held devices from apps? How reputable are these apps? It is almost as if we are just throwing opinions out into the world as facts. I find myself researching almost everything that sparks an interest on the daily. Being a nurse, research has been the forefront in the medical field. Research and verifying sources should spill into our everyday lives for the self satisfaction of knowing that what you are reading is the truth and can be backed by evidence. Great article.

  4. With anything on the internet, credibility is something that many should look for but do not. I can’t tell you how many times I log into social media to find shared articles that are completely satirical, but being taken as truth. Seeing as though technology is used at such young ages, those in middle school are old enough to learn about verifying the credibility of the sources they find. Not only is this beneficial for their own knowledge, but it is beneficial for those who read their material. Spreading fake news is something that should be avoided at all costs.

  5. The invention of the internet has dramatically affected how people research a topic. Previously, research involved visiting a library, finding a book on the topic in question, and then scouring the pages for relevant information. In today’s world, one can simply type their question into a search bar and be immediately presented with articles that directly pertain to your topic of choice. While this sounds wonderful on paper, this greatly increases the chances of inaccurate and unreliable sources in reality. Many students simply click on the first article they see and use that for their research – these students often get poor grades for their lack of effort. In schools now (especially at the college level), citing your sources is incredibly important, and your grade will suffer if your citations all came from an unreliable website (of which there are many). Finding credible, peer-reviewed sources on the internet can be very difficult, especially if its on a very specific topic. While it may be very tedious, it is a crucial part of writing a good paper.

    Proper research techniques should be taught in schools, the earlier the better. When I was in middle/high school, many students were able to use incredibly surface-level sources and still maintain a high grade. This teaches students that clicking on the first available article in a Google search and copy-pasting entire paragraphs into a Word document qualifies as “research.” Students should be taught how to find reliable and accurate sources for their work, because it is an essential skill for later in life, especially in college.

  6. This article was extremely helpful and is similar to what I was taught in high school. In all of my English classes we would go over how to find credible sources and all these points were included. This has helped me tremendously in college to find credible sources when doing any sort of research which I think helps me stand out compared to other students. This is definitely something I plan to teach students in the future. This article helped remind me of some of the things I forgot.

  7. Using credible sources is extremely important when publishing anything. Not only is it important for publishing but just for personal knowledge and conversation as well. It is so easy now to believe what you see on the internet and spread that false information. This article is a good read for anyone who uses technology and forms an opinion from it.

  8. This article is so important for educators and students alike. All throughout school I remember teachers telling us to avoid using unreliable sources for any sort of project. However, I don’t ever recall being told how to recognize the differences or what sort of sites to avoid (besides Wikipedia). Nowadays, it’s so much easier for anyone to create a fake website and fill it with nonsense so people using the Internet for research have to be even more aware of signs of unreliable sources. I love how this article walks you through the process of figuring out if your source is reliable, rather than just taking everything at face value. This article is something worth sharing to everyone, academic purposes or not.

  9. I really liked this article because it’s so important to use credible resources when researching something yourself, and as an educator, to instill that same mindset onto your students when they are using online resources for various school projects. With today’s world, It’s common to find mistakes or biased opinions online that trick people into believing its true, when in reality, it’s a matter of opinion, bias, or down right not based on fact. I like how this article had a section dedicated to a simple way of ensuring you are using a credible online source, which is to look at the end of the link – if it ends with .gov or .edu, it’s safe to say that the resource is credible, while websites that end in .com can be more tricky. I feel like this topic ties well into believing everything the media tells you, as a lot of media outlets can be biased towards one thing more than the other, and that’s something we, as a society, must look out for and be aware of as well.

  10. This is such an important topic to be talking about with students! I have seen countless students list “Google” as a source where they got information. It can be more and more difficult in today’s age to distinguish between truth and fiction. Further complicating the matter, we have the President of the United States charging journalists with pushing false narratives -calling into question one of the most important aspects of our democracy. Teaching students to think critically not only about the articles they are reading, but also about the sources of that information is a necessary skill in this tumultuous period.

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