20 Evaluating an Internet Source

Evaluating an Internet Source

Alys Avalos-Rivera

Having internet access opens the door to an incredible amount of information that can be a great help when you’re doing your homework. However, there are so many options from what you can choose, being selective is essential. Otherwise, you can invest a lot of time just reading, listening to, or watching available sources without getting your assignments done. Moreover, you should also consider the possibility that some of the information you can find on the internet is not totally reliable, appropriate for the audience, or relevant. Therefore, the challenge is to generate some well thought-out guidelines for identifying a source, before you decide to use it for your assignment. The purpose of this lesson to tell people about these guidelines.

Interrogating a source

As a first exercise, take some time to observe the following reference entry. Before clicking the link spend some time observing the details provided in the entry to answer the following questions.

  • What information about the source can you get from this entry?
  • What type of source are you dealing with? How do you know that?
  • What are the details can you get from the entry?
Source 1

McInerney, L. (2016, February 28). Golden handcuffs for teachers won’t solve the staffing crisis in our schools. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/28/should-teachers-trained-in-our-system-stay-in-our-schools

 

 

Now click on the link and try to find out if your guesses were accurate.

Observe the information provided on the web page and answer the following question

  • What  Is/are the names of the authors?
  • What is the name of the organization/company/group the insured information?
  • When was this information published/posted?
  • What do all these pieces of information tell you about the source?
  • Would it matter to you if any of these pieces of information were not provided? Why?

As you can see, the article comes from a newspaper. To know more about the information you can find on the different sections of a newspaper, click on this link.

The student has been given the following prompts to guide her as she writes her final papers for three different structures. Read the prompts carefully and decide whether the article from the Guardian (Source 1) would be a good source for any of the assignments. Does this article meet the student information needs as the writer of these three papers? State the reasons for your answer.

  1. Write a descriptive essay in which you report the different opinions, good or bad, held by the general public about public vs private education. This should be based on the results of a survey that you will conduct in your neighborhood. The survey will collect people’s opinions about private and public education with respect to the following topics student learning outcomes, quality and availability of learning materials, local schools facilities, the quality of teaching, and tuition costs and fees if any.
  2. Write a persuasive piece in which you argue that the teaching profession in the U.S. is undergoing a severe crisis. You must include at least three reasons why teachers present situation to be considered as a crisis. You will have to support each of your argument with evidence e.g. statistics, experts opinions, scientific reports.
  3. Summarize at least three different scholarly articles to address the problem of the shortage of teachers in England. Make sure you clearly state the purpose of each study, the method used, and the results obtained in each case. Take into account that you’ll have to present your summaries to a committee of professors in your department who are experts on the topic.

Discuss two reasons with your classmates and your instructor. Compare your answers and opinions about this exercise with their ideas for writing on a public page

Relevance, reliability, and appropriateness.

Relevance

The prompts in the previous section and Source 1 have overlapping ideas with regard to topics and subtopics, but also differ in certain aspects. To find out if it is a good idea to use a source from the same as described in the prompts you should consider the similarities and differences. Let us analyze each case separately.

Prompt A and the newspaper’s article have something in common: they both address the topic of education. The article talks about the problem of public school teachers’ salaries and one aspect included in the prompt also talks about teachers’ work, in particular the quality of their work. The similarities between the article and the prompt end there.

There are differences between the articles and the prompt that should be considered.

  • The assignment prompt clearly states that the content of the paper should be based on a survey previously conducted by the student. The results of the survey will provide “first-hand” information that the author (in this case the student) is supposed to collect directly from her neighbors. For this reason, this type of information is considered as a primary source. On the contrary, the article provides information that the newspaper’s writer has taken from various sources. She used this information to prove her point. This is why this sort of document is considered as a secondary source. Thus, the newspaper article is not the right type of source that the assignment prompt requires
  • The assignment requires information about the quality of public and private education. The article only talks about teachers’ low salaries. It does not address the other topics required in the prompt such as learning materials, school facilities, or tuition costs. Therefore, the information in the newspaper article does not fully address the contents listed in the prompt.

 

The content of the article and the type of information it provides do not address the prompt. Therefore, it could be said that this particular source does not meet the writer’s information needs. In such cases, you can say that, although the article may be interesting and it is published in a well-reputed newspaper, the source is not relevant for the purpose of this particular assignment. A relevant source should address your information needs as a writer considering the content and type of the source that best fits your writing purpose.

 

Exercise 1

Consider how relevant Source 1 would be to address Prompts b and c. Compare your evaluation with your colleagues and your instructor.

Reliability

Let us revisit Prompt b and compare it with information available on Source 1:

b. Write a persuasive piece in which you argue that the teaching profession in the US is undergoing a severe crisis. You must include at least three reasons why teachers’ present situation should be considered as a crisis. You will have to support each of your arguments with evidence (e.g. statistics, experts’ opinions, scientific reports).

Remember that Source 1 talks about the shortage of teachers associated to the low salaries offered in most teaching positions. Considering that the assignment’s purpose is to argue that the teaching profession is in crisis, you can say that Source 1 is relevant for the assignment at hand. However, when you are preparing an assignment, relevance is not the only characteristic you should take into account. You also need to consider the sources’ reliability.

Reliability refers to the extent to which the text represents reality. When a text is reliable, you can depend on its being truthful, objective, and free from bias (personal tendencies or preferences). In other words, a reliable text should be consistent with the world it tries to represent. A reliable source is supposed to represent reality as faithfully as possible by offering facts, evidence, and logical reasoning, as opposed to mere opinions.

A typical obstacle to hinder the reliability of a source is the writers’ bias. This means that writers may sometimes mix their personal opinions in the presentation of the facts, which makes us wonder whether one can truly trust in what they say.

Ideally, we all want information that we can fully depend on or rely on. Unfortunately, sometimes the information we find on the internet may contain claims that are biased. We should take this type of information with caution, especially if you are going to use the information in your assignments. This takes us back to consider whether Source 1 can be considered reliable.

You may remember that the article comes from a British newspaper called The Guardian. At this point you may ask yourself if The Guardian is a well-regarded newspaper and, most importantly, you may ask if newspaper in general can be taken as reliable sources. The answer to these questions is not straightforward. It may greatly depend on the type of newspaper, the reputation of the particular publication, the section of the newspaper where a particular article is published, and the editorial line of the newspaper. To know more about newspapers and how they are classified, click on the following links: types of newspapers and objectivity.

As a rule of thumb, before deciding on using a newspaper article in your assignments, remember that newspapers, no matter how well-reputed they are, may have a political slant (preference or inclination) and most of them are oriented towards profit (after all, newspapers are there for the business). This means that you should always keep in mind that newspaper column writers do not provide “facts” for the sole sake of providing facts. They may be favoring a particular point of view which colors their writing. Therefore, whether the newspaper is owned by a private company or by the government, a conflict of interest is often at play in the presentation of the news. For this reason, always ask yourself:

  • What is the political slant of this source?
  • Whose interest are the writers favoring in this article?
  • What evidence is presented to prove the writers’ claims?

Coming back to Source 1, you should know that The Guardian is a newspaper that has a liberal slant but a good reputation because of its efforts to be as objective as possible. This means that, although the articles published in this publication tend to support the left wing, they usually offer some evidence to support their claims. However, remember that Prompt b requires you to write a persuasive essay, which means that you have to offer a balanced argumentation. Using only an article from a leftwing newspaper as your source will not suffice. You need to get other points of view and put them into conversation to make a well-balanced argument. In conclusion, Source 1 is only partially reliable for the writing purpose at hand.

The same considerations that we have discussed about newspapers also apply to all sort of news you can find on the internet such as those on TV networks websites, radio station websites, and online magazines websites, among others. An interesting example to consider is the one of Wikipedia. To find out more about the degree of reliability of this famous open-access encyclopedia, click on the following link.

A couple of ideas that can help you in your search of reliable material are the following:

a) Whether the creator of the source is an expert or professional in that specific field
b) Whether the source is reviewed by peer professionals in the same field before it was published.

Exercise 2
Look at the following two sources and rate their degree of reliability in a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 means highly reliable and 0 means not reliable at all. [Hint: Where they are from gives hints.]

Source Rating 1-10
Source 2

Fulbeck, E. S. (2014). Teacher Mobility and Financial Incentives: A Descriptive Analysis of Denver’s ProComp.

Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 36(1), 67-82. doi: 10.3102/0162373713503185

 
Source 3 

Ingersoll, R. M. (2003). Why schools have difficulty staffing their classrooms with qualified teachers. Educational Leadership, 60(8), 30-33. Retrieved from

https://blueribbon.sd.gov/docs/Ingersoll%20Presentation819.pdf

 
Source 4

Kolbe, T., & Strunk, K. O. (2012). Economic incentives as a strategy for responding to teacher staffing problems: A typology of policies and practices. Educational Administration Quarterly, 48(5), 779.

Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1173330970?accountid=4117 doi: 10.1177/0013161X12441011

 

Appropriateness

Saying that a source is appropriate may imply two different things:

i) The source affords information that a particular audience may be inclined to accept and find as credible. For instance, scientists have preference for information that is supported by data and use specialized terminology to express complex concepts. On the other hand, personal experience and touching stories will be more appealing to the general audience.

ii) The source successfully achieves a specific purpose with the audience. For instance, a source may successfully persuade the readers but fail to entertain them.

In any case, the question of whether a source is appropriate or not is related to the audience you have in mind when you write. Effective writers always think of their audience at every step of the writing process. This means that when you select your sources you also need to consider your audience. Who are your potential readers? Do you want to inform these readers, persuade them of your point of view, or tell a story to make a point? You need to answer these questions when you are selecting your sources.

Let us now consider whether Source 1 is appropriate for Prompt c:

c. Summarize at least three different scholarly articles that address the problem of the shortage of teachers in England. Make sure you clearly state the purpose of each study, the method used, and the results obtained in each case. Take into account that you will have to present your summaries to a committee of professors in your Department who are experts on the topic.

This writing assignment expects students to summarize three scholarly articles (meaning they are written by a group of specialists in the corresponding academic field). First of all, The Guardian is not a scholarly journal (to know what sort of publication scholarly journals are, you can follow this link). So, even though the topic discussed in Source 1 is related to that of the prompt (this means that the source is relevant), Source 1 is not the type of source required by the prompt. Why is this so?

First of all, your audience is a group of professors in your department, who are experts in the field. As such, this audience expects highly reliable material, usually written by experts in their same field. That is the reason why the prompt specifically asks you to use only scholarly journal articles.

Second, your purpose or goal is to summarize the articles for this group of experts. The scholarly articles you use as sources should feature primary research and your summary should succinctly incorporate the purpose, the method, and the results of these studies. Newspapers like the Guardian can only provide facts and opinions from experts and researchers, but such articles never describe research studies in detail. This is because newspaper articles do not target a group of specialists as their main audience and their purpose is not to popularize research results.

Therefore, for a source to be appropriate, it should contain information that may be considered acceptable for the standards of your audience and contributes to the purpose of your writing piece.

Exercise 3
With a group of two or more colleagues, consider the following two sources:

Source 2 Source 5
Fulbeck, E. S. (2014). Teacher Mobility and Financial Incentives: A Descriptive Analysis of Denver’s

ProComp. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 36(1), 67-82. doi: 10.3102/0162373713503185

Teachers have it easy: The big sacrifices and small salaries of America’s teachers. (2005). Education

Week, 24(39), 38. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/202705483?accountid=4117

Source 2 is about the relationship between teacher mobility and salary change. It is from a peer-reviewed journal. Source 5 is about the imbalance between teachers’ efforts in work and their low pay. It is from a trade journal Education Week.

With this information in mind, do the following two tasks.

a. At first sight, make a guess about which one is more reliable than the other.
[Hint: Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis is a scholarly journal. Education Week is a trade journal.]

b. Consider the following situations and decide whether the sources are appropriate for the intended audiences, assuming that both sources are relevant and reliable.

Occasions Your role Your writing preparation  Your point of view Your audience Appropriate or not? 
               Source A    B
A national conference on education policy A presenter from a reputable university in the U.S. You are writing a paper for the conference and you are considering using this source in the literature review. You claim that decreasing teachers’ salary will result in lower education quality. Professionals and experts in the field
A course paper for Leadership in Education You are a student in the class. Term paper The thesis statement in your paper is that budget cut on local education will lead to lower teaching quality. The instructor of the class
“Student Association Day” on campus You are the Public Relation representative A brochure This is an annual event to publicize your club. You want to showcase your association’s advocacy service in favor of the cause of local teachers. Students across all majors on campus

Follow-up activities

Activity 1

Suppose you are writing a class paper on comparing eastern and western beauty standards. What do you think of the following two sources? Compare them considering relevance, reliability and appropriateness.

Source 6 How East Asian Beauty Standards Are Different To The West | Beauty Culture [online video clip].

Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8s27q47qInA

Source 7  Rosenfeld, L. B., Stewart, S. C., Stinnett, H. J., & Jackson, L. A. (1999). Preferences for body type and body characteristics associated with attractive and unattractive bodies: Jackson and McGill revisited. Perceptual and motor skills, 89(2), 459-470.

After this exercise, you will feel that the dimensions of reliability and appropriateness of a source are interrelated or even interdependent.

Activity 2

  • Pair work: Make a list of questions that could be useful to ask when you need to decide if a source is relevant, reliable, and appropriate or not. You may use the following chart to refine your questions and explain why you believe these questions are important.
Questions I should ask Why should I ask this?
1. 1.
2. 2.
3. 3.
4. 4.
5. 5.
  • Share your list of questions with your classmates and compare it to the list provided at the end of this chapter (Questions you should ask to assess a source).
  • Refine your questions and test them to assess the following sources. You can search for the document using one of the databases available in your Library (Hint: Proquest Research Library can be one of them):
Source 8
Pullen, C. (2007). Complete client satisfaction. Journal of Financial Planning, 20(6), 42-44.Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/217546867?accountid=4117

To know more about the material available on the Proquest Research Library click on this link.

Activity 3

Individual task:

The following sources were used by students like you in previous semesters. Evaluate how reliable these sources are using the criteria that you defined during the lesson. Based on your analysis, write a short evaluation of each source in a well-developed paragraph. Clearly explain the weaknesses and strengths of each source.

Sources  Evaluation
(9) Barak Obama transformed into 20-foot tall-monster president. (2016, March 3). The

Onion. Retrieved from: http://www.theonion.com/article/obama-transformed-20-foot-tall-monster-president-a-52471

(10) Jones, G. (2008). Blonde and blue‐eyed? Globalizing beauty, c. 1945–c. 19801. The

Economic History Review, 61(1), 125-154. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2007.00388.x

(11) Monks, K. (2014 May, 29). Bone conduction: Get used to the voices in your head [CNN

News]. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/29/tech/innovation/bone-conduction-get-used/

(12) DoSomething.org (n.d.). Eleven facts about teens and self-esteem [Blog and online

community]. Retrieved from https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-teens-and-self-esteem

Note for source 9: Some online news website are serious, some are not. Among those that are not, the Onion is a typical one. It is a spoof site, even though it takes broadcasting news as one of its missions.

Activity 4

Group work:

Suppose you are writing an article comparing beauty standards in different regions around the world, and the following seven sources are among your list of possible sources. Please rank the reliability of them from 10 to 0 (10= highly reliable and 0= totally unreliable). Justify your answers.

(13) Rosenfeld, L. B., Stewart, S. C., Stinnett, H. J., & Jackson, L. A. (1999). Preferences for body type and body characteristics associated with attractive and unattractive bodies: Jackson and McGill revisited. Perceptual and motor skills, 89(2), 459-470.
(14) How East Asian Beauty Standards Are Different To The West | Beauty Culture [online video clip]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8s27q47qInA
(15) Vagianos, A. (2015, August 14). What the ‘Ideal’ Woman’s Body Looks Like In 18 Countries. The Huffington Post, Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-the-ideal-womans-body-looks-like-in-18-countries_55ccd2a6e4b064d5910ac3b0
(16) H. Smith. (2013, September 11). Chinese Beauty Standards. Retrieved from http://crockerymockery.blogspot.com/2013/06/chinese-beauty-standards.html
(17) Barnett, H. L., Keel, P. K., & Conoscenti, L. M. (2001). Body type preferences in Asian and Caucasian college students. Sex Roles, 45(11-12), 867-878.

(18) Zhang, M. (2013). Beauty pageants in neoliberal china: A feminist media study of feminine beauty and chinese culture. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1520247484?accountid=4117

(19) Physical attractiveness. (2015, October 15). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on October 15, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Physical_attractiveness&oldid=685815248

Activity 5

How is Source 8 (Pullen, 2007) different from other sources that you have evaluated in this lesson? What type of document is this one? Look at the screen shot directly taken from Proquest Research Library database on the following page. Look at the list of source types on the left column. Discuss the different types with your classmates and your instructor:

Screenshot of a ProQuest database search

Go to the end of this lesson and read the text “Things you should know about the different types of sources that you can find in ProQuest database”. Based on this information, discuss the different degrees of relevance, reliability, and appropriateness of the sources available in the library. Consider also some internet sources such as blogs and the Wikipedia. How reliable are these sources? Why?

Questions you should ask to assess a source

Questions you should ask Why should you ask this?
1. Who is the author of this text? 1. A reliable source should clearly state who (person or organization) is responsible for the claims made in the text.
2. What is the author(s)’ background? 2. Is/are the author(s) of this text experts on the topic? What authority do they have to make claims on this topic?
3. When was this text published? 3. Knowing the date will allow you to say if the information is recent or outdated.
4. What organization do/does the author(s) belong to? 4. If the organization that issues the document is a serious and respected/reputable one for the specific topic, such as a scientific journal, or a well-known university, you may feel more inclined to trust in the source.
5. Was the document submitted to a peer-review process? 5. Some documents are first submitted to a group of experts before they are actually published online. Such is the case of scientific journals, which makes these publications more reliable.
6. Is there any possible conflict of interest? 6. If the document presents evidence that supports the commercial interest of the organization that issues the document, you may feel inclined to question the claims made in the text. For instance, for decades cigarette companies claimed that nicotine did not cause cancer and published some documents to support their claims. Now we know that they were in the wrong but kept supporting the idea because of their commercial interest.

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Evaluating an Internet Source by Alys Avalos-Rivera is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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