All information was not created equal, and the things you read need to be from authoritative and reliable sources: "my mate reckons...", or "the Sun says...", won't impress your tutors. But how can you tell if what you're reading is credible?
Judging credibility is not always straightforward. You need to carefully question every source you read: you'll need to read everything with a critical eye. Sources you find on the Internet need to be approached particularly cautiously. Anyone can publish on the web, and there are no checks made on the accuracy of the information you find there, and this includes Wikipedia. So how can you make sure what you read on the Internet is reliable? When you come across a source that looks promising, you need to consider...
Who published the site? Looking at the domain name can help: government sites often end in .gov, UK university sites end in .ac.uk, and overseas university sites often end in .edu. These sites should be more credible than someone's personal homepage.
What authority does the author have? If you are researching cancer treatments, the Cancer Research UK website might be a better source of information than a 'blog' written by a cancer patient.
“They would say that!” - look for evidence of bias. Does the author have a vested interest, or perhaps an 'axe to grind'?
Does the site look professional or does it look amateurish?
Are there other sites that you know are reputable that link to the site?
There are other things you'll need to consider when evaluating web sites, but the list above should get you started. If you're in any doubt about the Internet being a minefield for the unwary researcher, take a look at the SourceWatch site; this site investigates the organisations behind apparently independent websites.
On a more positive note, the Intute Virtual Training Suite provides excellent subject specific training to help you get the most out of the Internet - and it's free! Take a look at the training for students in your subject.
Although the Internet is especially problematic, you need to consider the validity and reliability of all the sources of information you use. For example, in most subjects there is a huge number of journals published, and they are not all prestigious and reliable; you'll need to find out which journals are considered the best sources of information for your topic.
Similarly, magazines and newspapers vary widely in their quality. Although The New Scientist would be an acceptable source, quoting Heat magazine is probably not a great idea. Again, be aware of the existence of bias; if you were looking for information on the costs to the NHS of treating asylum seekers, your best source might not be the Daily Mail.
Just because information is written with a certain bias, it is not necessarily wrong; for example, someone's 'blog' may be subjective, but it could offer a valuable insight into how an ordinary person perceives events. You have to remain critical at all times and judge the value of what you read.
Quality is more important than quantity: reading a few well-chosen, reliable, relevant and up-to-date sources is a better use of your time than reading lots of unreliable, out-of-date sources.
1. Visit the two websites below and have a quick read through the information on genetically-modified crops:
2. The first site is authored by an environmental pressure group, and the second site is authored by a reputable science journal. Do you appreciate that the second site would be a better source of unbiased information on genetically-modified food?
The best sources to use at university are usually peer-reviewed journal articles. These sources are generally unbiased, objective, credible and rigorous. On the next page, we'll look at how you can use the tone and style of a source to help you judge its quality.