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Evaluating Information Resources

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Criteria used to evaluate print and Internet information resources, differences between print and Internet resources, characteristics of scholarly vs. popular periodicals, and the scholarly publication cycle.

Evaluating information sources is a important part of the research process. Not all information is reliable or true, nor will all information be suitable for your paper or project. Print and Internet sources vary widely in their authority, accuracy, objectivity, currency, and coverage. Users must be able to critically evaluate the appropriateness of all types of information sources prior to relying on the information.

The Internet, especially the World Wide Web, has surpassed most libraries in the quantity of information it makes available. However, the Web has not surpassed libraries in the overall quality of information it makes available. Traditionally, a main component of library collections has been print (paper) materials. Today, however, many online resources are being added to supplement collections, replace printed (paper) items, or improve access. Although online sources are accessible via the Internet, many originated in paper form and follow the same publication criteria. Therefore the quality of print and online information sources are similar and will be considered the same in this discussion. A look at a few characteristics of print and Internet sources will identify major quality distinctions between print and Internet information sources.

Print Sources vs. World Wide Web

Print Sources

  • Quality standards of printed materials are controlled through a system of checks and balances imposed by peer review, editors, publishers, and librarians, all of whom manage and control access to printed information. This assures that published materials have been through some form of critical review and evaluation, preventing informal, poorly designed, difficult-to-use and otherwise problematic materials from getting into the hands of users.
  • In academic and other research libraries, most books and periodicals are a product of the scholarly communication system. This system ensures that authors present information in an orderly and logical manner appropriate to the topic.
  • Printed information in books and periodicals follows established linear formats for logical and effective organization.
  • Materials in printed form are stable. Once in print, information remains fixed for all time. New editions and revisions often are published, but these are separate and distinct physical entities that can be placed side by side with the originals.

World Wide Web

  • On the web, anyone can, with no supervision or review at all, put up a web page.
  • On the Web, there is no systematic monitoring of much of what appears, except, of course, for articles published in the online forms of otherwise reputable scholarly journals and books. Biases, hidden agendas, distorted perspectives, commercial promotions, inaccuracies, and so on are not monitored.
  • There is no standard format for web sites and documents. Web pages exhibit fewer clues regarding their origins and authoritativeness than print sources. Important information, such as dates, author(s), and references are not always easy to locate. While a reader can easily note this information in a book or periodical article, the web user must often search through several pages, if the information is provided at all.
  • Internet sources are also not stable. Web documents can be changed easily. And once changed, the original is gone forever unless a specific effort is made to preserve it. In fact, many Web documents are intentionally designed to change as necessary, and with automatic changes as with manual changes, the original disappears.
  • Web resources use hypertext links and need not be organized in any linear fashion. One can easily be led astray and distracted from the topic at hand. But, of course, one can also be led to additional information of value.

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