So you have found some information on your topic. But how reliable is it? This page offers tips on how you can evaluate the usefulness of the information you have found.
Why do you need to evaluate your search results?
There are two main reasons:
- Quality control - anyone can publish on the web, so there is little quality control, and information is often inaccurate and/or out-of-date. Likewise, anyone can contribute towards Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia.
- Reviewing the success of your search - careful evaluation can help you produce better work, raising your marks; evaluate badly or not at all and you can lose marks.
Five questions to ask when evaluating the quality of your results
Is the author:
- a well-known academic with many publications in peer-reviewed journals?
- attached to a university or research body?
- quoted by other scholars?
- an amateur with his/her own agenda putting up a personal page?
Use Google or a bibliographic database to discover more about the author, if his/her web site is unhelpful.
Who is hosting the site?
- Research institute, university or school (.org or .ac.uk or .edu)
- government body (.gov)
- non-profit organisation (.org)
- commercial company (.com or .co.uk or .biz)
Each of these will have a different reason for publishing the pages; a university site is likely to be more academic and usually less biased than a commercial site.
If not an academic site:
- check whether the page gives any information about the history of the organisation, its affiliations or view-points
- check whether anyone is sponsoring the site, and, if so, who
- check which country the site is based in. Information on China will have a completely different slant if put up in China or the United States.
Is the page written for:
- University students
- school children
- potential purchasers
- academics with very specialised interests
- Is the site up-to-date?
- Check to see if there is a date on the page
- If there is no date, check to see if there are broken links.
Sometimes this will not matter as some information can be timeless, eg. text of a book, but sometimes you need the latest research or news on a topic.
- Evaluate the content of the pages to see if they make sense – are there obvious errors or inconsistencies?
- Have they an obviously controversial focus, e.g. disparaging, or even defamatory of a person, organisation, religion or political party?
- Is evidence cited, e.g. other sources of information or other research on the topic, to back up the facts?
Reviewing the success of your search
Examine your search results carefully and see if they are what you were hoping for. If you are not happy with the results, don’t give up! A successful search will often take several tries. You can usually refine your searches by adding new terms which spring to mind once you have seen your initial results; or you may choose to limit your results if you feel you have retrieved too many.
Always remember to look at the "Help" or "Search tips" pages offered by the particular database or search engine you are currently using. Also, check to see what it covers.
If you continue to find poor results, you should consider using a different database or search engine.
For further help on evaluating your search results, contact your Subject Librarian.