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Review: Evaluation of Online Sources

Metzger, Flanagin, Lara Zwarun. College student Web use, perceptions of information credibility, and verification behavior. Journal: Computers & Education, Volume 41 Issue 3, November 2003, Oxford, UK. Pages 271 – 290

I love the irony of reviewing Metzger and researching the evaluation of online sources, online.

I think the fear of students either lazily using the first piece of information they come across, or even just misinterpreting a piece of information that turns out to be useless or not validated is actually an old one. College students can be divided into 3 groups, as I see it, those who thrive, those who survive and those who drop-out. In the old days, pre-Google, students (who didn’t drop out) went into their library and they either quoted the first book they came across (the survivors), or they did their research (the thrivers).

Yes, the web is full of untrustworthy information, but just because a book is in print, does not mean it is accurate, correct or should be quoted. (Would you quote Fogel & Engermann’s Time on the Cross, in a positive light knowing the controversy it caused?). The push to get more young people educated is also a push for more students to become academics, thereby pushing a constant need for new and maybe more bizarre, (and perhaps irrelevant) studies.

(From our Editing Skills reading list “Academics are Being Hoodwinked into Writing Books that No One Can Buy.” ).

There is a great article on Pacific Standard about Academic Hoaxes “An intellectual crisis in the age of TED talks and Freakonomics”. It is not just students that are under pressure. “We are living in an age that glorifies the single study,” says Nina Strohminger, “It’s a folly perpetuated not just by scientists, but by academic journals, the media, granting agencies—we’re all complicit in this hunger for fast, definitive answers.”

The first thing I did before reading Metzger’s article was to Google her. I felt I should evaluate her as a source before actually reading her article. (No offence to our lecturer, but always check your sources!). Metzger has written some very interesting pieces on “the intersection of media, information technology, and trust, centering on how information technology alters our understandings of credibility, privacy, and the processes of media effects”.  She noted that despite the fact that students considered content on the Web to be less credible, they still relied heavily on it for doing homework and assignments. Sifting through the mountain of information online can actually take up a lot more time than simply going to a library and asking for help. Technology promotes itself as being faster and more efficient, we are lured into thinking it is faster and more efficient to look information online, but is it? Is it a generational gap? The younger generation just do not spend as much time in the library as we did growing up, if they did, they would see it as a more valuable resource. Trying to find a more up to date article on evaluation of online sources, I came across more negative articles with statistics proving more students use Wikipedia than they should, then positive articles, here are the results after we taught students how to evaluate sources correctly, and look at the better results they got.


One good article I came across is Web credibility assessment: affecting factors and assessment techniques. It goes through a variety of approaches from a Checklist, Cognitive, Prominence-interpretation of factors, Contextual, Motivation-centred, Social and heuristic, Scaffolding tool, etc. So many ways! They suggest a hybrid model taking advantages of various technique, a multi-dimensional approach. Other factors I had not thought of before include digital signatures and metadata, to see if the website is actually what it says it is.(When is a .edu not a .edu)


Undergraduates’ Use of Social Media as Information Sources, is another more recent article I came across, while citing the usual negative statistics, it also says “While raising some concerns among IL educators, social media also offer exciting opportunities for users. They facilitate interactive and collaborative knowledge production and sharing. Social media can also provide local and current information and serve as outlets for viewpoints and voices that are not typically conveyed by traditional or dominant media outlets.If used properly and with care, social media can be powerful and transformative tools.” Never before have students had access to so many websites, journals, archives, read peer reviews. Even opportunities to tweet the authors. Its boggling really! There is such a need for digital researching skills to be taught to students before entering 3rd level education.

There is no definitive list for evaluating sources. Here is an on-going check list for evaluating sources, that I will put into practice:

Author (Are they specialists in the area? Have they been cited before?)

His/Her Qualification (Academic Background)

Affiliation (Is the information presented objectively and without bias? Is their research funded by government grants, private organisations or a commercial firm? )

Audience (Evaluate each source with regard to the intended audience.)

Genre (Textbooks, Theses, Scholarly research papers, Literature reviews, Popular science articles, Encyclopaedias, Op-Ed, Essays, Blogs, etc)

Track Record (Citation analysis, Alametrics, Article-Level Metrics)

Their sources (The author cites his or her sources in footnotes or a bibliography. Is it Primary, Secondary, etc )

Publication Date (Is it out of date, or is there a newer edition)

Publisher (Reputable?)

Publisher Track Record (Long-standing?)

Editorial Control (ethos and affiliation of publication, possible sponsors. Ownership)

Peer Reviewed (If the source is an academic journal, find out whether its contents are peer reviewed)



Citation Anylysis and Altmetrics http://www.library.illinois.edu/learn/research/citationanalysis.html

Quantitive Evaluation http://sokogskriv.no/en/sources-and-references/source-evaluation/qualitative-evaluation/

Article-Level Metrics http://lagotto.io/plos/

Altmetrics http://www.altmetric.com/

Evaluating Sources http://betterthesis.dk/literature-search/evaluating-sources

Website Checklist http://www.lib.umd.edu/binaries/content/assets/public/usereducation/evaluating-web-sites-checklist-form.pdf

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So, what do you think ?