Notes from the Technology Trenches - January, 1999

Diana Botluk is a reference librarian at the Judge Kathryn J. DuFour Law Library at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and is the author of the The Legal List: Research on the Internet.  She teaches legal research at CAPCON, Catholic University Law School, and the University of Maryland.  Take a class with Diana!  Here's how...


Since the Web provides a forum for just about anyone to publish just about anything, users of information found on the Internet should look at it with a critical eye. Assessing the quality of information involves looking at a variety of factors.

Much is written about evaluating the quality of Web resources. This is demonstrated by the World Wide Web Virtual Library's long bibliography of online articles that discuss the quality of information found on the Web. Lawyer and author, T.R. Halvorson also points us in the direction of many different articles about the same topic.

In a previous Research Wire column, Genie tackled the topic of finding good law on the Net, and identified five characteristics of superior information sources: timeliness, expediency, accuracy, objectivity, and authenticity. While there is some variation in stated criteria for evaluating Web resources, most discussion takes on a similar theme.

It is generally accepted that those who rely on Web based information should look at the credibility of who is providing the information.

  • Is the provider an authoritative source, such as a governmental body or other organization?
  • Might there be any sort of bias on the part of the provider of information?
  • Can the content of the information be independently verified for accuracy if need be?
  • Does the provider of the information also supply contact information such as an e-mail address, street address or telephone number?

The date of the information is another important factor.

  • Is the information itself up -to-date?
  • Does the provider of the online information keep the Web site fresh and provide updates as quickly as possible?
  • Is it easy to update the information on the site?

On the American Library Association's Web site, author Jim Kapoun provides a handy chart explaining five factors to be considered when evaluating a Web resource: accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency and coverage. Johns Hopkins University's Elizabeth Kirk delves deeply into the issue of evaluating the quality of Web information, with particular attention to evaluating the provider of the information. She identifies questions to ask about the author, publisher, and timeliness of the information provided. Esther Grassian, from the UCLA College Library, provides guidelines for critical thinking in the evaluation of Web resources, which consist of a thorough compilation of questions one should ask oneself about both general and discipline-based Web resources.

In his article "Evaluating Information on the Internet," D. Scott Brandt from Purdue University Libraries poses the problem that some people think they can find anything on the Internet and that anything they find is good information. He identifies three ways in which information is filtered for quality in traditional publication methods:

  1. written/issued by an authoritative source
  2. authenticated by editorial review
  3. evaluated by experts, reviewers, subject specialists or librarians.

Publication on the Web can often bypass these traditional methods of filtering information for quality, thus making the end user of the information more responsible for the evaluation process. While some patrons believe all Internet information is quality, others take a more paranoid approach and refuse to acknowledge the Internet as a legitimate method of delivery for information. A student in a continuing library education class I recently taught told a story of an attorney who refused to accept a copy of a bill retrieved at Library of Congress' Thomas Web site because it was from the Internet, and therefore inherently unreliable.

Some patrons prefer the Internet as a method of information delivery above all others, despite the fact that more convenient resources may be available literally at their fingertips. I remember walking past a law student in the reference room who was using the Law Revision Counsel's Web version of the United States Code. While this is a reliable source for the U.S. Code, it isn't the most convenient version of the code to update, as the end user must search for public laws that affect their code sections and incorporate the updates themselves. While this task is certainly achievable, and might be the only research option available at times, it was not the best option for this student. She had commercial research services available on the computer she was using, which not only make the updating more automatic, but will now even tell you when there is a bill pending in Congress that might possible affect your code section if it is passed. Not to mention the fact that she had the hard copy of the U.S.C.A., with its pocket parts and supplements, literally four feet away on the shelves behind where she was sitting.

Both of these examples illustrate that people with a need for information are not always making the best choices when Internet delivery is thrown into the mix. Neither of these law library patrons evaluated the options available to them in order to suit their information needs in the most time/cost efficient manner. Thus, evaluation of Web resources should not be made in a vacuum, but within the context of the research situation.

Evaluate not only the end product and the way in which the information is retrieved, but also the context in which the research is being performed. This involves a comparison of the various research methods available to you at the time you are performing the research. For example,

  • Are you at home in the middle of the night, and the Web your only option?
  • Are you at work, with a well-equipped library full of varied print and electronic resources?
  • Is the Web the only place to retrieve the information conveniently?
  • Do you seek a law from a foreign country that might not be readily available another way?
  • Do you seek a U.S. Government agency publication that would involve a trip to a depository library or an interlibrary loan?

Sometimes the Internet is even the preferred method of retrieval, as is the case with the current day's Federal Register, which is available online at GPO Access before it appears anywhere else.

Thus, researchers should not only ask themselves whether the information is current and from a credible source, but also whether the site providing the information is the most suitable given the particular circumstances of the research project.

References

Smith, Alastair. "Evaluation of Information Sources," World Wide Web Virtual Library. http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~agsmith/evaln/evaln.htm

Halvorson, T.R. Quality of Information - Index Page. http://www.netins.net/showcase/trhalvorson/s-stuff/quality.html

Tyburski, Genie. "Publishers Wanted, No Experience Necessary: Information Quality on the Web" LLRX Research Wire. June 24, 1997. http://www.llrx.com/columns/quality.htm

Kapoun, Jim. "Teaching Undergrads Web Evaluation," College & Research Libraries News, July/August 1998, v. 59 #7, pp.522-523, http://www.ala.org/acrl/undWebev.html

Kirk, Elizabeth. Evaluating Information Found on the Internet. http://milton.mse.jhu.edu:8001/research/education/net.html

Grassian, Esther. "Thinking Critically About World Wide Web Resources," http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/college/instruct/Web/critical.htm and "Thinking Critically About Discipline-Based World Wide Web Resources," http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/college/instruct/Web/discp.htm UCLA College Library Instruction.

Brandt, D. Scott. Evaluating Information on the Internet. http://thorplus.lib.purdue.edu/~techman/evaluate.htm