Finding, Evaluating, and Citing Websites

Why use a Website?

The open web provides us a huge pool of openly accessible information that may be difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. This opportunity is not without risks, however, since web pages that provide good information and ones that attempt to mislead or misinform are often difficult to tell apart.

What is a Website for Research Purposes?

When you open a browser like Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, or Chrome you are almost always using it to access a website. However, not everything you can see in your browser is considered a website when it comes to doing research for a project. Often we use browsers to access articles and reports that have been reproduced  on a website but are not websites themselves. When we cite information for a project like this we must cite the  original source and not merely where we accessed it.

Some examples:

  • Databases are not websites. When we use PubMed and FindIT to look for and access articles we are looking at articles that were published elsewhere but we access on a website. We cite these things using their original publishing information.
  • E-Books are not websites. When you use sources like the Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders you are accessing an online reproduction of a physical book. You should cite the book, not how you accessed it.
  • Search Engines are not websites. When you use search services like Google, Bing, and Yahoo these are indexes of individual websites. Just like you wouldn't cite the library catalog where you found a book, don't cite these. They are a means to find websites, not websites themselves.
  • What IS a website? A website generally has a unique URL (the address in the bar at the top of your browser) where it can be accessed which does not change every time you visit. They are authored by one or several individuals, and feature text and pictures that have not been published elsewhere in that form.
  • Still not sure? Ask your librarian, instructor, or TA about any other source you are unsure about.

Choosing a Reliable Website

As I mentioned before, not all websites are created equal. Often websites have been created with the express or unintended purpose of misleading or misinforming us. These websites look and act very much like those with reliable information but there are few ways we can work to choose only websites that contain information we can trust and use.

 Look at the URL

Often we can tell a lot about a website just by looking at the address we use to get to it. Look at the URL of the site and see if you can spot any of the following:

  • Contains ".edu": This means the site is owned by an educational institution like a school, college, or university. Take a look at the main page for the school (you can often do this by removing any text after the ".edu" in address bar and and hitting enter.) Is it a grade school -- or college or university? Would you attend this school?
  • Contains ".gov": This means the site is operated by a branch of either federal or local government in the United States. Most of the time these sites are very reliable, but don't take it for granted.
  • Contains ".org": This means a website is supposed to belong to an organization but unlike the ".edu" ending there are no restrictions on who can get a ".org," so be wary and keep looking for signs this website might be trying to fool you.
  • Contains ".com" or ".net": These websites are a free-for-all. They are widely available and you don't need to prove anything to purchase one. This site might or might not contain reliable information but you can't tell just based on the URL here.
  • Contains "." followed by anything else:  Different countries around the world use different combination of periods and letters to end their domain names. Don't be put off by ones you don't recognize

Who is the Author?

A reliable website will list who wrote the text on the page. If the author of something you are reading is not listed at the top or bottom of the page try looking for a link that says "About Us" or something similar.

When you have found the authors' names, look around the site to see if they list any qualifications, have posted a resume or CV, or in any other way explained who they are and why they are qualified to write on this topic. You are looking for pages written by professionals in the field. Here are some things to look for when reading about the author of a page:

  • Where did they go to school and what degrees did they receive? How are these degrees related to what they are writing about?
  • Have they written traditional publications like books or articles on the subject?
  • Have they ever taught at the college, university, or professional level?

Sometimes websites are written by many people or are listed as being authored by an organization. In these cases try to determine the group's purpose or goal and if it appears to be an authentic and reliable group. Try looking for other information about the organization on other websites or looking for a list of their board of directors.

If you cannot find any information about the page's author or no author is listed then avoid using the page as a source of information or talk to your librarian, instructor, or TA before proceeding.

 Intent of the Site

Try to interpret what the purpose of the website might be. Who is the target audience? Is the author trying to inform the audience of to push a particular viewpoint or even product? Many websites that appear reliable are marketing sites in disguise. This can be especially true of sites containing medical information about drug treatments.