Evaluating Web Sources: Part II

In last week’s post, we talked about how to begin the research process of your essay. Hopefully, you’ve spent some time in the planning stages and have settled on an essay topic and are ready to begin evaluating the sources you have found. You might have collected research from the library in the form of books or journals, from library databases, such as EBSCO or Opposing Viewpoints, and online sources. You know that most books, journals and library databases are a good place to find credible sources.  But how do you evaluate the credibility of web sources?

The internet can be a wonderful and useful tool to learn more about a topic and a good place to collect research. The web houses a vast amount of information, and web-based research can be as reliable as any print source. And let’s face it – it’s easy. At the touch of a few keys, you have a world of information readily available. However, even though you might find a limitless supply of quality sources online, you can just as easily find sources that are biased, outdated, and outright incorrect. So how does one evaluate web sources?

Who is the Author? 

Many websites list no author, and often are produced by some nameless, faceless voice. One might assume if an author puts his/her name on a webpage or article on a website that it must be credible. But don’t be so sure. Simply having an author name attached to a website or page doesn’t guarantee that person is a credible source. Who is this person? What are his or her qualifications? Many times, the author may be an advocate for one side of an argument, or an employee of a company or business that falls squarely on one side of an issue. Even a “Dr.” or “PhD” behind a name doesn’t necessarily make them a credible source. If an author’s qualifications are not listed, do some digging. Google their name. Work to uncover what their background is. This will save you some frustration and embarrassment in the end.

Who is the Sponsoring Organization? 

When you find a website you’d like to use, is the sponsoring organization clearly stated? Most credible websites clearly state the sponsor of the website. One good rule of thumb is the domain provider, which indicates the type of sponsoring organization. College and university websites are all .edu; nonprofits use .org (though not solely nonprofits); government entities use .gov. Most instructors consider these domains more reliable sources of information than .com or .net domains.

Even though you may find good information on .com or .net, these domain types are less predictable and more often biased. Even though .org are used for nonprofits, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t find biased information on these websites.

What is the Purpose and Audience?

When you study the website, is it clear what the purpose or function is of the information? Many websites are there to educate the audience, but beware. If they are making some type of argument, leaning to one side of a position, then it may be biased.

Can you discern who the intended audience is? If you find you agree with everything the information conveys, that doesn’t necessarily make it a good resource.  You want unbiased sources who have no stake in your argument. Otherwise, you’ll have a lopsided argument that lacks credibility.

How Current is the Information?

If the website publishes articles, do they list a publication date? If not, scroll down the webpage to the bottom of the screen. Here you should find the “Last Update,” or publication date of the webpage. Many instructors require current research, especially on scientific-related topics. Even research one year old might be outdated in some topics.

If the website offers linked pages, click on those to see the dates listed on the pages. It’s not uncommon to find websites with pages of dead links, which is often a sign the webpage is outdated.

Spending time collecting research is only half the battle; once you find research that fits your topic, it’s imperative you take the time to evaluate all sources before you include them in your argument. You’ll be glad you did.

Students: Have you ever found research that you later learned was not as credible as you originally thought?

Check out the websites below.  Are they credible?



More help with evaluating online sources can be found at : http://people.wcsu.edu/reitzj/res/evalweb.html



Researching the Research Paper: Part I

Getting Started with Research 

Your instructor has assigned a research paper which will require ten credible sources. You begin your search where everyone does – online. You google your search term, “Lower Drinking Age,” to find over five million hits. You make it more specific: “Lower Drinking Age to 18,” and get 4 million hits. You pull out your assignment guidelines for some direction, and notice it states, “Ten credible sources, only 3 of which can be websites.”

You’re doomed.

You are at home or work and can’t get to the library. How can you ever find enough sources for your paper if you are not allowed to use all websites? And what does “credible” mean anyway?

Sound familiar?

Finding reliable sources is the single most time-consuming task of writing a research paper. It takes time and patience to locate effective sources that support your argument. So where to start?

Google Scholar

In the initial stages of gathering research, the internet can be a useful tool if used wisely. As you are just beginning to gather information, you’ll want to cast a wide net to study and understand all the angles of your topic. One great online site to begin is Google Scholar.


Google Scholar can give you access to research across a wide range of  disciplines. You’ll find all types of print and web sources: books,   journal articles, court documents, dissertations, and even university websites, which are generally the most credible type of web-based source (should always be “edu”).

If you search “Lower Drinking Age,” you’ll see a sidebar on the left that offers you a way to narrow the results by type, year, and relevance. On the right is a “My Citations,” link where you can track a researcher’s work (you must have a Google account for this). The advantage of this tool is if you find a particular researcher who is publishing work in your topic of interest, you can find other relevant publications by the same author.

Once you find some intriguing articles, you can click on the link to read the abstract (description of the article). If you scan over to the right of the link, you may see links to the printed version in an HTML or PDF file with the full text.

 At the bottom of the annotated link, you’ll see a horizontal list of further help, including “Cited,” which shows many times the article has been cited; html, if this type of version is offered, other related articles (which is a good info to have for further research; other versions of the article (which may include more current research), and other types of information related to the article. You may also see a link under that says, “find it @ MCC.” This mean Metro will have that source in one of its libraries or have access to it. If you are on an MCC computer, you also might see “E-Resource at MCC” in the right margin, which means you can access the resource online through MCC.

Take some time in this stage to tweak your search terms and scan the research to find the perfect support for your paper. Carefully take notes of the articles and authors you might to use, or if you are able, print out the full link so you’ll have it when you go back to read the full text later. Note that just because you originally found a source through an online search such as Google Scholar, does not mean it’s considered a “web source.” Slowing down and taking these steps will save you time later.

 Take some time to search Google Scholar and let us know what you find!

Next week we’ll discuss additional tools to help with your research paper.

Are students more willing to cheat?

A recent article from The New York Times and picked up by newspapers across the county (including Omaha World Herald) discussed what recent studies have shown is a rampant increase in academic dishonesty. “More Students Willing to Cheat,” recounts recent cheating scandals at some of the nation’s top educational institutions, including the US Air Force Academy and Harvard. What research is showing is that high achievers are just as likely to cheat as struggling students. I addition, the studies suggest the problem of cheating is only getting worse.

Instructors have long dealt with students who are either lazy or struggling, the “cheat to survive” student. But now, universities are seeing a new student, what the researchers call the “cheat to thrive” student. This student might be in the top of his class, but feels he/she needs a leg up on competition – cheat to thrive.

Some of the studies blame the internet. It’s no secret the introduction of the  internet in the last two decades has made cheating all too easy. Freshmen might not yet understand the complexities of appropriate citation or that “cut and paste” research is a form of plagiarism. But once a student has sat through a lesson on how to cite research, once a student has been informed that cutting and pasting from the internet, without proper referencing and citation, is a form of plagiarism, is it then intentional cheating? Most instructors from a recent MCC survey say yes.

Perhaps we now live in a culture where academic dishonesty is punished by a wag of a finger instead of an “F” on the paper, or even expulsion from class, as was once the norm, whereas now it seems to be the exception. Perhaps the educational institutions are at fault for not setting specific consequences across disciplines to combat the ever-increasing problem.  Perhaps students don’t equate the “Academic Dishonesty” sections in their student handbook to plagiarism. Regardless, this is an issue that doesn’t seem to be going away, and as research is showing, is only growing worse.

Questions for Students

What are your experiences? Have you ever intentionally or unintentionally plagiarized or outright cheated on assignments? Were you caught? What are your and your friend’s attitudes about cheating?

Questions for Instructors

Does your department have a policy regarding plagiarism? Does each instructor have their own policy? Is your plagiarism policy spelled out in your syllabus? Do you discuss it with your students?

How to Choose a Great Essay Topic (or how NOT to write another “Legalize Marijuana! paper)

Imagine this: your instructor has just sat down on a Friday night with a stack full of argument papers to grade. The first several off the top of the stack are the standard, high school topics we’ve all read a hundred times: “Stop Childhood Obesity!” “Ban Cell Phone Use While Driving!” “Approve Stem Cell Research!” and the all-time favorite, “Ya-da, ya-da – Legalize Marijuana!– ya-da, ya-da.”

Then the instructor comes upon an essay explaining the benefits of painting classrooms in cool colors – blues, greens, lavenders –  which research has shown improves concentration, lowers stress levels, and improves attention. The instructor becomes so engrossed in the topic she can’t put the paper down. He/she is not only thoroughly entranced by the essay, but he/she is learning something from the essay as well. The instructor collapses with sheer joy over your essay, shouts “HALLELUJAH!”  and dances a jig in her living room.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated, but I’ll guarantee he/she will be thrilled to read an essay with such a unique topic.

Where to Find Topics

So you’ve decided to write outside the box and begin your quest for the perfect topic, but you don’t know where to begin. First, think about what interests you. Don’t write about something you don’t care about. One place to begin is your field of study. What are you majoring in? Are there any problems that need a solution, or any reforms that you think might help the industry? Maybe you wish your field of study offered an internship program. Maybe this leads you to argue that all fields of study should offer internships, for credit, as part of any degree program. Interesting.

Another avenue to research is your college; what issues are being debated at your college that might resonate with readers. What issues are not being debated that you think should be? Maybe you think the whole A-F grading system is an arbitrary way to assess your learning, and a more accurate assessment might be simply a pass/no pass system. Some universities have abolished the A-F system, which they believe only forces students to focus on their GPA, instead of learning for the sake of knowledge. Very interesting.

If you’re coming up empty and all else fails, search out the library databases at your college. One favorite is Opposing Viewpoints. This online database is a treasure trove of ideas. Articles are separated under the headings of “Business and Economics”; “Energy and Environmentalism”; “Health and Medicine”; and “Society and Culture,”  just to name a few. In these links you’ll find dozens of debatable topics that would make a unique and interesting argument essay.

Test Your Topic

Once you think you’ve hit upon a unique topic that you are interested in, think about how it might work for your assignment. Some things to consider include:

  • Will it fit in the parameters of the assignment?
  • Will I be able to find reliable sources (if required) to support my  argument?
  • Is the topic too broad for a short essay?
  • Is the topic too narrow for a longer essay?
  • Is it a timely topic, or have I read or heard about this topic for years?

You might even consider asking your instructor if the topic might make a good essay for your class paper. Many instructors require topic approval before you begin.

Once you’ve hit upon a unique and interesting essay topic, you’ll find that you’ll not only be more enthusiastic about writing the paper, but the audience response will be more enthusiastic as well, and the paper will almost write itself.