Caveat Emptor: Weighing the Worth of Web Resources(1)

by LeAne H. Rutherford
Instructional Development Service

Caveat emptor should be the mantra of anyone surfing this world in which anyone with an Internet connection, the will, the technical knowledge, and free time can produce a shoddy reference tool on any subject, validating Alexander Pope's observation that 'A little learning is a dangerous thing.' Our experience with printed reference sources demonstrates that not all reference books are created equal. Nor are all Web sites (Rettig).
All Web sites are not created equal. Nor are all reference materials. Just ask college instructors who assign research papers to their students. Students, particularly first and second year college students, usually lack experience with evaluating resources. It is not unusual for them to eschew serious journals in a field in favor of Time, Readers' Digest, or worse, tabloids such as The National Inquirer. Frequently, they cannot name even one reputable journal in a given field such as computer science, botany, special education, or finance. The fault is not theirs, if fault exists. However, that experiential gap does point to a need: the need to assist them in evaluating sources in general, and in evaluating Web sources in specific.

Why do we need to address the task of evaluating Web resources? No matter whether the net is viewed, in James Rettig's words, as a "huge vandalized library...[whose] thousands of additional unorganized fragments are added [to] daily by myriad cranks, sages, and persons with time on their hands who launch their unfiltered messages into Cyberspace," or, contrastingly, viewed as the promise of evolving communicative freedom, it is here, varied beyond belief, and spewing information with fire-hydrant force.

In the role of facilitators of learning in this Information Age, we must assemble and present a set of evaluative tools to students. They have instant and easy access to limitless information which provides fewer clues to its origin and relative worth than its offline counterparts. Computer-mediated , the Web is not tactile, for example. Students cannot feel its glossy pages nor its coarse newsprint. Students do not pull it from the stacks nor from the racks at supermarket checkout lanes. Some of the telltale character of sources is lost in its electronic transmission.

Some traditional print techniques for evaluating sources are still pertinent. According to Widener University Reference Librarians Jan Alexander and Marsha Tate, the five traditional print evaluation criteria still pertain: accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, and coverage. In addition, be cautioned about Web-pertinent aspects which go beyond the traditional. The following five paragraphs interpret and illustrate Alexander and Tate's adaptation of traditional print evaluation for use in electronic evaluation which they appropriately published on the Web.

Accuracy: Recently a cartoon in The Chronicle of Higher Education showed a dog sitting in front of his doghouse. Instead of a sign with just his name, Spot, above the door, we see "". Almost anyone and his dog can publish on the Web, and in some cases without verification by editors or fact checkers.(2) Granted, major newspapers and journals such as the T.H.E. Journal and some institutional "Websters" do bring full editorial force to the Web, but Web standards for ensuring accuracy are not yet fully formulated.

Authority: Children often ask, "Who says?" Web-users should, too. Well designed Web pages link users to the name of the author. But it is frequently difficult to determine if there is a publisher behind the site or what the qualifications of the author are. An interesting article in the September, 1997, Syllabus on evaluating internet research asks, "Do we know that individual's professional connections: place of employment, position, phone number or e-mail address, association memberships, degrees and institutions, awards, reputation in the field? "

Objectivity: The Web may be dominated by self-interest and subjectivity run rampant. It has been described as a "virtual soapbox." Anyone can tout any topic, and the more volatile the topic, the more potential exists for bias or skew. For example, take a manufacturer of diet pills. How objective might the company's Web site be on the topic of its own product safety?

Currency: Although the Web functions superbly in dealing with dynamic data such as stocks, sports, and weather, Web sources do not always include meaningful dates showing the timeliness of the information base. By virtue of its recent invention, nothing on the Web can be really old, but at least the date of its last revision should be ascertainable.

Coverage: Students who are neophytes in a field usually do not know what the potential breadth and depth of a field or topic might be. They may also get lost in following links which never get them to the bottom of the informational pile or to the major points of the issue they are pursuing. The very non-linearity of Web resources makes determining coverage different and even difficult at times.

An excellent site which addresses specifics in filtering authorship, publisher, bias/point of view, referral to and/or knowledge of the literature, accuracy, and currency is This site also includes a link to "Practical Steps for Evaluating Authorship, Publishing Body, and Currency."  [Aug 5, 2002:  I now find that this link is broken -- another example of the reason for not trusting web sources.]
Practical Tips for Evaluating

Determine the purpose/type of the site. Tate and Alexander suggest the following categories: entertainment, business, information, news, advocacy, or personal presentation.

Ascertain if the advocacy and the informational content are being supplied by the same person.

Evaluate any links to an original page independently. The quality of the hypertext links may vary from that of the initial page.

Know that software may limit how much can be seen of a site and how information appears.

Question the stability and/or cost of a source. For example, the L.A. Times provides each day's paper free electronically, but it charges for retrieving back issues. Another example lies in the T.H.E. Journal which posts articles from its magazine electronically for just two months before they are replaced.

Seek (and personally evaluate) the coverage of online reviewing services such as the following:

Rely on work done by the American Library Association (ALA) and its organizational branches on selecting and evaluating the content and organization of Web sites: [8/5/02:  "Error 404: Document Not Found.  The document you requested could not be found. Please refer to ALA's Website Sitemap or use our Search Page to help you find the page.or"  When one clicks on this latter link, the following message appears:  "Error 404: Document Not Found.  The document you requested could not be found. Please refer to ALA's Website
 Sitemap or use our Search Page to help you find the page.  Please contact the {sic} if you need further help."]

Ask yourself to make an intuitive judgment based on this question: Would I bookmark this site?

Create an evaluation checklist with the help of your class. There are many unique elements contributing to the quality of resources from the Web which do not exist in any other medium. Thinking through the criteria for the checklist would be the first step in acknowledging those elements. As a second step, have each student evaluate a site of choice in the field relating to the class.

Give your classes URLs for good web sites for your courses. That will give them touchstones for quality. For example, on our campus, Conrad Firling gives his students a password which allows them into The Biology Place ( Georgia Keeney refers her students to, a gateway to consumer health and human services information.

Alexis Pogorelskin suggests to her students that they start with a trip to "Teaching and Learning" on the UMD Home Page, which leads to "Colleges and Schools", "CLA", "History", and ultimately to "Department Picks."

Investigate the following sites for further illumination on evaluating Web resources:


If we ask our students to seek resources from the Web, we need to help them weigh the worth of those resources. In addition, we must illustrate the value of researching both offline and online repositories of information to be sure that our research is exhaustive. Prepared with awareness of, criteria for, and practice in judging the value of Web resources, our students will be able to survive scholastically as technology moves inexorably forward and standards and guidelines for evaluative procedures continue to evolve.


Rettig, J. (1995). Putting the squeeze on the information firehose: The need for 'neteditors and 'netreviewers. (1998, April 15).

Alexander, J. & Tate, M. (1996, October). The Web as a research tool: Evaluation techniques. (1998, April 15).  [8/5/02:  Another broken link.]


Homework Assignment

Trolling the web, I ran across CSPINOT, a site devoted to bashing the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to look at these two sites (using the links above) and decide how trustworthy each of them is.  To do so, you should answer the following questions and (if this is an assignment) come to class prepared to answer the following questions:
  1. The two sites differ in purpose.  What is the purpose of each site?  What does this imply about our different expectations of such a site?
  2. The obvious place for this assignment to go is for you to check out those expectations.
Here is what CSPINOT says about itself:

"CSPINOT is a site created by the Center for Consumer Freedom, a coalition of more than 30,000 restaurant and tavern operators working together to protect the public's right to a full menu of dining and entertainment choices. Are we biased? You bet. The Center for Science in the Public Interest [CSPI] and its founder, Michael F. Jacobson, have been attacking our industry for more than two decades. We resent the junk science they use to make the attacks and the media condemnation that accompanies them.

"The restaurant industry offers food and entertainment choices for an endless range of tastes. We offer people a place to celebrate and come together. Our philosophy is simple... offer people a wide menu of food and drink they will enjoy accompanied with good service and let them make the choice.

"This site allows you to judge CSPI from their own words (with some commentary by us), or through quotes of others and let you make the choice. We'll let you decide what you think of CSPI.

"© Copyright 2002, The Center for Consumer Freedom
"Washington, DC | Tel: 202-463-7112"

-- From CPSINOT, a site created by the Center for Consumer Freedom, [ (April 1, 2002)]


1. This article originally appeared in Instructional Development XIV (3, Spring Quarter, 1998), pp.3-5. Reprinted here with the permission of the author.

2. [SPC's note:] Here's a specific example of such reliability problems:  "Two people were arrested in Malasia for spreading rumours on the Internet about riots, which caused panic in the capital" (The Economist, "Politics This Week, August 8th - August 14th 1998).  I'm not worried about you getting arrested, of course;  I cite this just to show how people can and do use the Internet for their own purposes, which may not include telling the truth.

3. [SPC's note:] This link existed and was checked when the article was published, but it does not exist as of this writing [March 13, 1999 - within a month of the article's publication]. [Aug 5, 2002:  The link now does nothing but carry you to an ad for some portable phone company.]  All of this is just further evidence of how unreliable WWW citations can be.

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Author:  Stephen Chilton [email]  |  Last Modified:  2004-04-22
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