Is the Internet Trustworthy?
While the Internet is undoubtedly a tremendous resource for researchers of all ages, it is also probably the world's single largest repository of misinformation. A general stance of skepticism towards information found on the Internet is probably a good idea. Remember, the Internet is simply a network of computers. It has no editorial standards of any kind–anyone can set up a Web site and present any kind of information he or she wishes, be it bogus or legitimate. For this reason, some teachers will not accept citations of Internet Web pages in their students' school reports.
Despite the massive amount of misinformation to be found on it, the Internet has revolutionized modern research by making incredible amounts of heretofore difficult to obtain information available to just about anyone with access to an Internet terminal. Researches who don't make use of the Internet are missing out. Here are some general ways of knowing the good from the bad:
- Look for Web sites that belong to well known and reputable groups and publishers. CNN's Web site, for instance, is a division of a major news outlet and as such can be reasonably expected to present reliable and accurate information to the public. Of course, even major news publishers like the New York Times have on occasion printed inaccurate information.
- Domain names can also give a very general idea of how reliable an information source is. Government data will be found at Web sites whose domain names end in .gov. Thus you can tell the Bureau of Labor and Statistics Web site is part of the United States government by simply looking at the URL: http://www.bls.gov/. The Web site "http://www.whitehouse.org" would therefore not be a good source, but http://www.whitehouse.gov would. Web sites from educational institutions will end in .edu (for example, http://www.ucsd.edu); and various organizations will use .org (for example, the American Civil Liberties Union will be found at http://www.aclu.org/).Commercial Web sites use the .com domain and should probably be approached with the most skepticism.
- Look for a Web site author's name, credentials, and an e-mail address. An author who will not identify him- or herself and who is impossible to contact should never be considered a trustworthy source of information.
- Does the Web site cite its sources? Anyone can make up facts and figures; if facts and figures are attributed to a specific source, you can verify that they are accurate.
Also, take advantage of the Librarians' Index to the Internet. The LII is a searchable database of Web sites that have been found by professional librarians to be good, reliable sources of information.
Finally, your San Diego Public Library's Web site can be a portal to a vast array of information that used to be available only in print. The library subscribes, for instance, to several magazine and newspaper databases that will allow you to read, print out, or even e-mail articles from major print publications (which, unlike the Internet, do have high editorial standards). Full bibliographic information accompanies these articles so that they can be properly cited in school reports.