How to Determine if a Website Has Accurate Information
A simultaneously wonderful and annoying thing about the Internet is that just about anyone can put up a website in a matter of minutes. This is an obvious boon to free speech, because you can get a message out there and communicate something to the world without having to spend a lot of money or effort on doing it. But it also means that you need to remember that a lot of what you find on the Internet is about as reliable as if you stopped someone on the street and asked that person for an opinion about something. Thus, you should use common sense and a critical eye to determine whether or not the information you find on the Internet is accurate.
Consider the source. If the website is published by a government agency, such as the CDC or the IRS, the information on it is most likely accurate and will have been vetted by multiple expert sources before being published on the organization's website. Conversely, if the information originates from an individual user's blog, much more skepticism is in order--especially if the blog writer lacks a recognized credential in the subject matter.
Examine the motives behind the site. If the website you are looking at is attempting to sell you something, there is an ulterior motive and you should take any claims the website makes with a grain of salt--even if it claims to be supported by "experts." Similarly, a website that is created to persuade you of a particular viewpoint may also cherry pick information to support that viewpoint while ignoring other evidence or factors.
Evaluate the overall tone of the website. A reliable source should be balanced, addressing both sides of an argument without a bias toward one or the other. And again, if the website is making soaring generalizations or unrealistic promises, it is most likely not a reliable source--even if some of the information on the website might be technically accurate. Similarly, a website that is poorly written with numerous grammar errors and poor presentation should be evaluated more critically than a professionally written website that has a clear tone of expertise (although expert writing and high production quality is not a guarantee of accuracy).
Look for sources for the information discussed on the website. Without sources, the writer of the website is essentially as reliable as someone saying "because I said so." The sources should be of high quality as well. It helps to differentiate between primary and secondary sources too. For example, the text of a study published in a peer-reviewed journal is a primary source, but a news article reporting on a scientific study is a secondary source. A primary source is usually more reliable than a secondary source. News reporters may not fully research what they are writing about and they may get some details wrong in their reports.
Check to see whether other sources exist corroborating the information on the website. Usually if something is true and accurate, it will be published in more than one place. If a fact exists only on one specific website and is not corroborated by any other available source, it should be considered suspect.
Tips & Warnings
- Peer-reviewed journals, which are often published on the Internet, are excellent sources of accurate information for research projects, because these sources will have been reviewed by multiple experts in the field with inaccurate information usually being filtered out long before publication.
- If you are conducting research for a school report, try to stick to information presented by experts or other primary sources as references for your report (and the same applies to research for freelance articles).