Genie Tyburski is the Research Librarian for Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the editor of The Virtual Chase Web Site: A Research Site for Legal Professionals.
I cannot tell how the truth
I say the tale as 't was said to me.
-- Sir Walter Scott
Last month I promised to examine methods for identifying information quality on the Web. I emphasized the importance of considering the source; i.e., the site, before relying on information obtained from it. I mentioned that superior Web sites possess five characteristics: timeliness, expediency, accuracy, objectivity, and authenticity.
To review, timeliness and expediency refer to the speed with which a source makes up-to-date information available. Accuracy pertains to the completeness, factual irrefutability, and verifiability of a source. Objectivity encompasses impartial unbiased interpretation or analysis. Authenticity deals with the authority and expertise of a source; it may include appearance.
Not surprisingly, given the anarchistic nature of Internet and the resulting lack of peer review or editorial standards, many resources fail to meet these criteria. Some, like the Home Web page of Arthur R. Butz, fall short for obvious reasons. It states: "This Web site exists for the purpose of expressing views that are outside the purview of my role as an Electrical Engineering faculty member. The material will be continually updated and revised, but will always have an emphasis on Holocaust revisionism."
Others falter for minor reasons that may not exclude them from the realm of possible resources. For example, Philadelphia Online, which offers the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News from 1981 and 1978, respectively, to present, provides those seeking the region's news stories with a convenient bona fide source. Unfortunately, the appearance of the Web version differs greatly from the print edition diminishing its authenticity, particularly for lawyers who want to attach copies of their research findings to a legal document.
Many sites lacking quality may not appear deficient except upon close examination. For example, some public company home pages omit data by offering readers "selected" information from securities filings. Only a review of the actual filing sheds light on the missing facts. In addition, some company sites supply information from old annual reports. Still others offer only favorable press releases.
How can researchers avoid relying on defective or misleading information retrieved from Web sites? To begin with, users new to a site should ascertain its objectivity. The easiest way to do this is to read the site's purpose statement. Reputable sites should declare their intentions on the home page, or provide an express link to them from the home page.
The Securities Class Action Clearinghouse exemplifies objectivity. After opening its welcome statement, researchers learn: "By accessing this site, the public will be able to form its own opinion as to whether litigation is with or without merit, whether too few or too many companies are being sued, and whether recoveries are too small or too large."
Compare this statement with the one offered by The Cigarette Papers:
"Written by experts with the scientific and legal knowledge to understand the meaning of the documents and explain their importance, The Cigarette Papers show that the tobacco industry's conduct has been more cynical and devious than even its harshest critics had suspected. For more than three decades the industry has internally acknowledged that smoking is addictive and that use of tobacco products causes disease and death. Despite this acknowledgment, the industry has engaged in a variety of tactics to deny its own findings and to convince the public that there is still doubt about the harmful effects of tobacco or that the effects have been exaggerated."
While the authors may be medical experts and the documents authentic, it is evident they intend to sway public opinion. This lack of objectivity does not necessarily mean the source provides substandard information. To the contrary, many authors use unimpeachable data combined with a compelling writing style to influence readers. Beware of partiality, but consider the information's possible accuracy.
Advertisements and captivating quotations may also influence opinion. Sensitivity to these and other means of persuasion will aid researchers in their efforts to obtain reliable information.
Next, if a seemingly impartial site offers primary or secondary source materials, discover how it obtains and updates the information it provides. Businesslike sites offer easy-to-find documentation that reveals: the information source, the extent, if any, of editorial enhancements, the updating method and frequency, and the names of the individual(s) responsible for the site.
The Villanova Center for Information Law and Policy's credits and conditions statement illustrates excellent site documentation. It discloses the origins, editorial policies, if any, and updating schedules of the federal appellate court decisions available from VCILP's site. It also provides the names and email addresses of those who maintain the pages. Other examples of informative documentation include:
- the U.S. House of Representatives' documentation for the C.F.R. and U.S.C. databases
- Cornell Legal Information Institute's Credits and Conditions Statement for Historic U.S. Supreme Court Decisions and for current bench opinions.
Third, some sites exist to offer commentary on the law. If such a site provides objective analysis, ascertain the credentials or reputation of the individual, organization, or company giving the review.
In some cases, researchers will recognize the source as a reputable legal publisher. For example, Law Journal Extra!, the publisher of National Law Journal and New York Law Journal maintains a site that offers news, articles, and memoranda on several legal subjects. Another legal publisher, Legal Communications, Inc., provides information of interest primarily to legal professionals in Pennsylvania.
While experienced legal professionals immediately discern the authority of such sites, others may not. All sites offering interpretation and analysis, therefore, should provide verifiable evidence of their qualifications.
Individuals should supply autobiographies or curriculum vitae. They should cite to educational or work experiences as well as authored works published by sources with high editorial standards. John December's hyperbiography, for example, reveals his educational background, interests, published works, accomplishments, and technical expertise.
Other good autobiographies of those offering commentary include:
- Yogesh Malhotra's Profile (@BRINT), and
- Mark J. Astarita's autobiography (The Securities Law Home Page).
Companies and organizations should also illustrate their expertise. They should provide profiles or histories that refer to past accomplishments. NAREIT Online, the Web site of the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, for example, offers the NAREIT Resource Guide. The Guide describes the organization, its activities, services, and resources.
Other meritorious samples of profiles provided by organizations offering commentary include:
- Bio sponsored by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and
- Legal.Online published by Legal Communications, Ltd.
In addition to ascertaining credentials, researchers should look for an article's creation and revision dates. Necessary for citation purposes, this information lends credence to a source. Web publishers supplying these dates acknowledge the relevancy of time to information.
Finally, researchers should confirm that which they find. Verifying information substantiates its completeness or accuracy.
Even reputable publishers make mistakes or experience problems with their products. For example, as mentioned in last month's column, the U.S.C. database at GPO Access contains a corrupted citation field that effects Title 29. Correct citation searches for sections of Title 29 produce erroneous results.
Until recently, Cornell Legal Information Institute's site for current U.S. Supreme Court decisions offered the Court's bench opinions in ASCII. The site existed to offer tools to facilitate locating U.S. Supreme Court decisions. It did not subscribe to Project Hermes, the Court's electronic dissemination system.
Instead, Cornell LII pointed to the Case Western Reserve University ftp archive. For easy retrieval, because prior to the advent of Netscape and similar browsers, use of ftp required knowledge of special commands (get, mget, bi, etc.), Cornell LII linked to the ASCII subdirectory of the CWRU archive.
This meant users who followed the path, obtained ASCII converted copies of the Court's decisions. The Court uses WordPerfect to produce its opinions. An ASCII conversion strips all WordPerfect coding, including the FN code for footnote. For years, researchers using this method to retrieve U.S. Supreme Court opinions unwittingly failed to obtain the entire document!
Experienced researchers verify information regardless of its source. Although the Web facilitates sharing information, it frequently sacrifices editorial or peer review. Additionally, in a digital environment, technical problems arise, which may corrupt, delete, or otherwise effect important data. Furthermore, the Web encourages technological innovation. Its popularity causes many publishers to release new products too soon and before they identify or fix potentially serious problems.
For these reasons, researchers must be cognizant of information quality. Use a Web information source quality checklist to aid in the evaluation of Web site information. As Thomas Jefferson might caution, were he alive today, when seeking the best of the Web, "we must resort to information which, from the best of men, acting disinterestedly and with the purest motives, is sometimes incorrect."
Ciolek, T. Matthew. "The Six Quests for The Electronic Grail: Current Approaches to Information Quality in WWW Resources," Review Informatique et Statistique dans les Sciences humaines (RISSH) 45 (1996)
Kirk, Elizabeth. "Practical Steps in Evaluating Internet Resources," 1996, rev. 25 February 1997. Online. Internet. 30 May 1997. Available at http://milton.mse.jhu.edu:8001/research/education/practical.html.
Patterson, Shawn. "Evaluating and Citing Internet Resources," 1997, rev. 3 February 1997. Online. Internet. 3 June 1997. Available at http://www.udmercy.edu/htmls/Academics/library/webpage.
Rettig, James. "Putting the Squeeze on the Information Firehose: The Need for 'Neteditors and 'Netreviewers," 1995, rev. 8 November 1995. Paper presented at the 15th Annual Charleston Conference on library acquisitions and related issues, November 3, 1995. Online. Internet. 30 May 1997. Available at http://www.swem.wm.edu/firehose.html.
Stepno, Bob and Bob Henshaw. "Quality of Information ... and Disinformation Online," 1995, rev. 14 November 1995. Online. Internet. 3 June 1997. Available at http://blake.oit.unc.edu/~rbstepno/disinfo.html.
Tillman, Hope N. "Evaluating Quality on the Net," 1995, rev. 18 May 1997 from a paper presented at Computers in Libraries on February 26, 1996. Online. Internet. 30 May 1997. Available at http://www.tiac.net/users/hope/findqual.html.