• 3-minute read
  • 20th July 2017

Internet Research: Which Sites Should You Trust?

The internet is full of many things, including kittens, people with no clothes on, and some very angry below-the-line comments. But none of these are much use while writing an essay.

Unless you’re writing an essay about kittens, obviously.
(Photo: Ty_Swartz)

However, online research is now an essential part of student life, so you need to know how to spot good academic sources amidst the internet’s endless sea of nonsense.

How to Tell If a Source is Academic

If you’re doing research online, you need to be careful about the sources you use. After all, there’s a lot of information on the internet and most of it is wrong. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to check whether a website is a reliable source:

1. Look for the Author/Publisher

If the page has a named author (look for a name at the top or bottom of an article, or an ‘About Me’ page for the whole site), see if they have any qualifications or experience in your subject area. If not, they might not be a reliable source.

Similarly, you can check the company or institution that publishes the site. If it’s a university site, like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it’s much more likely to be academic. You can also use well-known journal databases to find good articles.

2. Look at the Writing Style

How well written is the site you’re using? If it’s full of errors or non-standard spelling and punctuation, it’s probably not very reliable. A good academic source should also be objective. Thus, if the language on a site is very biased or emotive, it won’t be suitable.

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3. Look for a Date

Try to find out how current the site is and whether it’s still being updated. Official company websites are usually more up to date (and thus accurate) than other sites, especially if you’re writing about the company itself.

4. Look for Sources

A good website will list or link to its sources. Remember: if the page you’re using doesn’t tell you where it got its information, you have no way of checking whether it’s true.

The Dos and Don’ts of Wikipedia

Despite being the first stop for anyone looking to settle a factual argument, you should know that WIKIPEDIA IS NOT A RELIABLE ACADEMIC SOURCE. Don’t believe us? Check Wikipedia’s page on Academic Use. The first line there is ‘Wikipedia is not considered a credible source’.

At least they’ve got citations for their own unreliability…

Admittedly, this does raise the question of whether Wikipedia is a reliable source for information about Wikipedia, but we’ll leave that issue for another day. For now, we’ll focus on the two big ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ of using Wikipedia to research an essay:

  • DO use Wikipedia as a starting point if you’re not sure where else to look. Your best approach is to look for relevant information with a linked source at the bottom of the page. This can lead you to books and other sources more suitable for research.
  • DON’T cite Wikipedia in your work. Using it to find sources is one thing, but it isn’t trustworthy in itself. If you cite Wikipedia in your work, you will almost certainly lose marks.

Now go! Get on the internet and do your research. Just remember to look in the right places.

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