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Evaluating Web Documents

Any web site, or any information it may contain, can be used for a research project. The trick is to use web sites appropriately. All undergraduate research projects need scholarly and peer-reviewed sources to substantiate the author's arguments. These sources can be found using the "Research Databases" link found on the Hekman Digital Library web site. But, sources that carry less scholarly weight, sites that may be biased, fluffy, or even rife with errors, can be important components in building a research project. Listed below are some examples of web sites and their possible uses.

Your professor may limit the number of sources you may use from the web. Be aware that not all documents found on the web are "web sources." For example, full-text journal articles and electronic books found on the web are not "web sources." These are no different than the articles and books you will find in paper on the library shelves. They are simply in a different format and accessible online.

Primary Source Material -- Evaluation Criteria: Modified

The web is often the best place for finding primary source material. Primary source material is anything written at the time the event occurred. For example, Huckleberry Finn, a diary, a sermon, a scientific experiment, or a newspaper article all qualify as primary documents. It is essential that you verify that the content has not been modified.

Official Website Documents -- Evaluation Criteria: Author/Authority; Audience; Objectivity; Currency; Modified

Documents taken from the official web site of a respectable and responsible organization. Web sites for government agencies, corporations, and organizations for the public good (e.g., American Cancer Society) would be considered official web sites. These organizations have a reputation to uphold and will usually evaluate all material posted on their web sites. However, the material may reflect only one side of the issue.

Overview -- Evaluation Criteria: Objectivity; Currency; Author/Authority

These web sources are useful for understanding the topic and are analogous to encyclopedia articles. Use information you find in these sources with caution because the accuracy of the information they contain is frequently unverified. Overview sources can lead to additional clues about people, places, and things associated with the topic, but should not be considered scholarly or essential to the development of an argument.

Factual/Statistical Information -- Evaluation Criteria: Modified; Currency; Author/Authority

The web is a great place to locate factual and statistical information. Does the web page cite the source of the information? If it does, and if it is possible to obtain the source, use it instead of the web site. If the web source is an exact copy of the printed source, a pdf file, for example, then verifying the information is not necessary.

Anecdotal -- Humorous look at plagiarism -- Evaluation Criteria: Coverage

Used to spice up a paper with a few insignificant, but interesting, facts

Making a Point -- Evaluation Criteria: Coverage; Audience; Objectivity

A paper on First Amendment rights for hate sites will be strengthened if reference is made to actual hate site content.

Arguments made by the "Other Side" -- Evaluation Criteria: Author/Authority; Objectivity; Coverage

What are proponents of the "other side of the coin" saying? Often, the views of the "other side" are not well-represented in scholarly literature (e.g., the anti-anti-smoking position, the Holocaust revisionist position, and Creationism). To properly understand your position, you may need to incorporate arguments from the other side. Make sure the spokesperson (web site) you select is reasonable and not a quack!