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When searching for information on the "free web", you need to be critical. Here are a few reasons:
On the "free web", anyone can post information, which can be unreliable and inaccurate
The amount of information online can be overwhelming; there are currently more than 357 million websites in existence
When searching the web, you get A LOT of results, many of which may not be relevant
Many websites may have an agenda, or may be trying to sell you something
Search results bring varying results, only some of which may be relevant for your research
Scholarly sources are usually not available on the "free web." They are located primarily in library databases.
The CRAAP Test: Guidelines for Evaluating Websites
When evaluating websites or any other information sources, use the following CRAAP test to help evaluate the information you find. This checklist applies to any resource you may use for a school assignment, but keep in mind that some items are specific to websites. Download a CRAAP test worksheet.
Currency: The timeliness of the information.
When was the information published or posted?
Has the information been revised or updated?
Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well?
Are the links functional?
Relevance: The importance of the information for your needs.
Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
Who is the intended audience?
Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining this is one you will use?
Would you be comfortable citing this source in your research paper?
Authority: The source of the information.
Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
What are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations?
Is the author qualified to write on the topic?
Is there contact information, such as a publisher or email address?
Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source? Examples:
.com - commercial site
.edu - school or university site
.gov - government website
.org - for-profit or non-profit organization site
Note: Domains such as .ca (Canada) or .au (Australia) are country-specific domain names. It is not easy to tell what type of organization is behind these domain names so use some of the other criteria to evaluate the website.
Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness and correctness of the content.
Where does the information come from?
Is the information supported by evidence?
Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion?
Are there spelling, grammar or typographical errors?
Purpose: The reason the information exists.
What is the purpose of the information? Is it to inform, teach, sell, entertain or persuade?
Do the authors/sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear?
Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional or personal biases?
The CRAAP test is provided by the Meriam Library California State University, Chico.
What about Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is a free, online encyclopedia that contains articles about nearly any topic. It may be tempting to use it as a resource for an assignment, but keep in mind that most instructors WILL NOT accept wikipedia as an acceptable source. Why? Wikipedia entries can be edited by anyone that has access to a computer and creates a wikipedia account. This often compromises the quality of information that may appear in Wikipedia entries. The last thing you want to do is to use false information in your assignments.
So what do you do? Use Wikipedia as a starting point for your research, but, if you want to use information from it, try to verify it in another reputable source instead.