We all find and use websites dozens of times each day. But finding a good, reliable website that is relevant to your research topic can be a little trickier. This part of the tutorial will give you some suggestions of how to find such websites, and (more importantly) teach you how to critically evaluate the websites you do find for research.
The simplest way to find websites is to use a search engine, such as Google.
Google can be a great place to start your research. If you're trying to get your head around your topic, Google is the place for you. It is also a good place to end your research—say you're trying to find this one last statistic to boost your argument, or you're curious if anyone has approached your topic from such-and-such a direction. Google is great for filling in the gaps.
However, when you deal with Google results, you're also faced with something like this:
Depending on the key terms you use, you will typically get millions (or even billions, as in the search above) of results from a Google search. That is WAY too many web pages for anyone to go through. There might be good, accurate information out there, but unless it happens to show up on the first page or two of results, you probably won't find it this way.
So what to do?
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.
We'll modify our search from before, to make it a little more specific, and we'll pick a website that comes up in the search:
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 Washington Post. 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 Washington Post is the main newspaper for the Washington, D.C., area, 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 business section of the Post's website, and it's part of something called "WonkBlog":
So knowing that it is part of a blog tells us that it is probably closer to an opinion piece than a regular newspaper article—so we should proceed with caution.
In this case, we're lucky because we have a specific author's name on the article. That is more likely to happen on a news website than some other kinds. 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 case, we got doubly lucky, because not only do we have a name, but we also can click on it to get a brief biography of that person.
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.
Next we look at the article/information itself. How is it written? Is it just straight–up opinion, or does it give facts and statistics? If it gives any sort of statistics, does it cite the source of them (either formally, in a citation like your professors ask you to do, or informally, saying "As such and such report from Big Agency says. . . ")?
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.
Fortunately, our article not only has statistics, but also cites the studies in which they were found:
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? The ones to the journal articles that the statistics came from? Those would 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 to journal 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!
In Part 5 of the worksheet, you can poke and prod at a website for your own topic. Don't be satisfied with non-answers! Make it tell you all its secrets!