What are the signs that a website has credibility and value to the researcher? What specific information in a website's presentation lets the researcher know that this information is valid and verified? This portion of the paper explores the way in which websites are best evaluated and tested for validity.
Website Review and Evaluation
When a researcher goes to Google and types in "evaluating website checklist," Google reports (in less than 2 seconds) that there are "About 760,000 results," or links, to sites that relate to that topic. Anyone that has used Google knows full well that all 760,000 of those links are not necessarily useful; and indeed there are bound to be repeat links among the 760,000 sites.
The shortest criterion for evaluating websites was put online by Avon Public Schools in Connecticut. There are eight ways to check information on websites (note: some schools spell it "web site" and others use "website" (still others capitalize "Website"). The eight from Avon schools include: a) "it is clear who has written the information?"; b) are the "aims" of the site clearly established?; c) does the site "achieve" those aims? d) it is relevant to my needs? e) can the information be verified? f) how old is the site?; g) is the information biased?; and h) does the site offer choices? (www.avon.k12.ct.us).
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) is far more thorough, and offers five key criteria. The first is "credibility" (is the author listed, what are his or her credentials, can the author be reached for comment, is it peer-reviewed and is the spelling / grammar proper? Under "Accuracy" UIUC asks: is the site current, is the information complete and does the author "…acknowledge all views?" The site included "reasonableness" (fairness, truthfulness), "support" (backup and sources listed), and "design and technology" (how it looks and do links work?). The University of California at Berkeley has some interesting criteria for evaluation; for example, "Why was the page put on the Web?" is a very germane question. Is it intended as "satire or parody?" Or is it "appropriate" for the research a student is engaged in? Is it "second hand information" and are there valid links to "more resources"? The most poignant sub-head in the Berkeley list is, "Does it all add up?"
The University of Southern Maine (USM) covers most of the issues other sites cover, but USM does have some original ideas for checking the credibility of websites. For example, "Is the material at this site useful, unique, accurate, or is it derivative, repetitious, or doubtful?" Also, USM asks: a) how frequently is the resource updated? b) Does the resource have a reputable organization or expert behind it? c) Is the information available in other formats? d) Is the information available in other formats? And e) Is the arrangement of links uncluttered? (USM).
The University of Maryland actually has a checklist in the form of a survey. The students print out the survey and check in the boxes that apply. The author points out that one should not necessarily be immediately impressed with a website because "Anyone who knows a little HTML coding and has access to a server can create and load a web page." Under the subhead "What is the purpose of the web page or site?" there are 8 boxes provided. Any website would fall under one of the 8 categories, a few of which include: "A forum for scholarly research"; "For entertainment"; and "An advertisement or electronic commerce." Under the subhead "What does the web site provide?" one of the boxes can be checked if the user "…couldn't tell."
One of the important rules of thumb is for the user to know roughly when the site was last updated or revised. The University of Maryland checklist points out that some websites that relate to historical events don't need updating as often as more current information, but still, checking the validity of any website is vital in order to be certain of accuracy and thoroughness.
Two Websites that address The Underground Railroad
Checking for websites that provide information for the Underground Railroad, a researcher uses Google and 6,730,000 links come up in 0.35 seconds. The first two appear to be of good quality -- National Geographic and Public Broadcast Service (PBS). But the…