Once you have a found a website that you think looks promising, it is very important that you look at it critically to determine what kind of information it holds, how reliable it might be, and whether or not it is appropriate for your research.
So how do you do that?
By asking a bunch of questions of the website, and poking and prodding at it until you get answers. No, really. Don't believe it? Watch.
Let's say you found this article from the New York Times: An Inadequate Response to Concussions: N..A.A. Guidelines on Head Injuries Fall Short.
So we click on that link, and it brings us to the article. Then we start poking at it by asking questions.
So now we know that this article was written for the New York Times. If you don't recognize the name associated with your web site, take a short detour and do a little research on them (hint: the "About" section will probably help with this)! It's important to know, because it helps you determine credibility.
But in this case, we do know that the New York Times is a worldwide newspaper based in New York City, and is generally considered a trustworthy source of news.
But hold up a minute. Just because something was written for a newspaper's website doesn't mean it's entirely factual. Which brings us to:
The top of the web page, above the information/article itself, will often give you clues, particularly if you're on a website that has multiple sections. Here we can see that this article is found in the Editorial section of the New York Times' website, and it's an opinion article.
So knowing that it is part of a an opinion article tells us that it is not a regular newspaper article and we should proceed with caution.
In this case we're told that it was written by the Editorial Board. Often times on newspaper articles, it will have a specific author's name. You might not always be able to find a name-and if you can't, that should make you worry a little bit. In this article, we can go to the bottom of the article to see who is a part of the editorial board by clicking on "Meet the New York Times' Editorial Board."
Again, because this is a newspaper's website, we get lucky and have the date that the article was published right next to the author's name. Most article and blog posts will have a date attached to them, which can be a real help. If your web page doesn't have a "date posted" piece of information, try looking at the bottom of the page for a "page last updated" section. Many websites automatically include that when their owner updates.
Any time a website starts throwing around facts and statistics and doesn't say where they got them from, be worried. Be very worried. Back away from the website slowly.
Our article provides links to their references including a survey the article uses for data:
So now that we have poked and prodded our website, and gotten answers out of it, what can we conclude?
In this particular example, we know that our web page is:
So this page is probably a good starting point in our research, but not something that we could cite in our paper, especially if our professor had specified that we need to use academic journal articles only.
Remember those links we pointed out above? Those could be perfectly acceptable to cite in our paper. Websites are great for this sort of thing—you can get a good overview of a topic, and, if it's a good website, you'll get links/references tol articles that you can track down for your research.
Websites are a perfect example of why research is a multi-step process—you might not be able to directly use the information you find on them, but they will often lead you to resources that you can use. So don't stop after the first step, keep going!
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