The Problem

The Internet offers near-instant access to a variety of information that you might find helpful in your research. Yet because anybody can post information on the Net, and because most on-line information does not have to pass any standards of peer review (unlike conventional published resources), there is a very real risk that on-line resources can lead you astray. For example, my research on territorial claims has led me to web sites claiming to give an impartial, objective description of the history and relative merits of two countries' competing claims to the same piece of territory --but which in actuality are thinly disguised propaganda pieces attempting to support the writer's country while rejecting the other country's claim. For example, what the author simply calls the Eritrea-Ethiopia Conflict Webpage turns out to be heavily slanted in favor of Ethiopia (even going so far as using picture captions such as "It is not for a lack of criminal intent, but rather thanks to the incompetence of the Eritrean Air Force that Simret is still alive today"). I have had students unquestioningly use such web sites as sources in research papers, assuming that all of the "facts" and opinions presented are accurate and do not need to be questioned or investigated further.

Of course, it is always possible to mis-use traditional library sources as well as Internet sources. For some reason, though, my students have had a much worse problem in this respect with Internet sources. This may be because Internet sources are seen as possessing more credibility than traditional sources, or it may be that the students who have had trouble with this in the past are generally students who have waited until the last minute to do their research and thus haven't taken the time to evaluate their Internet sources (while most students who research in the library have generally started early enough that this hasn't been a problem for them). Whatever the reason, though, this has become a very serious problem for students in my courses using Internet sources in their papers.

Guidelines for Using Internet Sources in My Courses

A very simple solution to this problem would simply be to forbid the use of Internet resources in college-level research papers. This would definitely end the problem, because you can't misuse a resource that you aren't allowed to use in the first place. Yet in many cases, the Internet does have valuable resources for academic papers; the remainder of my web site is full of links to potentially valuable Internet research resources. In particular, current or recent events are likely to be covered in a much more timely fashion by Internet newspapers or by the web sites of countries or organizations involved with a certain ongoing problem than is possible with books or journals in the library; there is simply too long a lead time in the publication process for us to expect the library to have information on events in the past few months.

As a result, I have decided to allow the use of Internet resources in my classes with the following provision. Any student wishing to use an Internet resource must consider the source very carefully before deciding whether or not to use it. Any Internet source to be used must be cited fully in the bibliography or references section of the research paper in question, and must be accompanied by a paragraph evaluating the source. This means identifying the author and publisher of the source (in addition to simply listing the URL of the web page where the source is located), identifying any potential biases or viewpoints that this author and/or publisher may have that would limit the value of the source, evaluating the recency of the source, and so on. For example, you should attempt to determine the viewpoint of the author -- is he or she trying to analyze a situation objectively, or trying to present a strongly held personal opinion? (note that many people pushing their own opinion will try to present it in a way that disguises it as an unbiased, objective analysis) Similarly, you should try to determine the author's affiliation and location; the odds of an objective analysis of the Ecuador-Peru dispute are much lower for a web page served from inside either Ecuador or Peru (or a web page maintained by an Ecuadorean or Peruvian living abroad), all else being equal. It is also important to consider how current the author's analysis is; many web pages are put up and then forgotten by their authors, meaning that they quickly lose currency and are not changed in response to changing events. Failure to evaluate Internet sources in this way will lead to the assessment of penalties against the assignment's grade.

The following links offer advice to consider when evaluating resources found on the Internet -- and might be able to help you avoid making embarrassing mistakes by trusting unreliable information sources. None of this should be taken as suggesting that Internet research is a good way to research scholarly papers; many professors refuse to allow students to use Internet sources in academic papers. Internet sources should never be used as the primary basis for any college-level paper, any more than encyclopedias (printed or on CD-ROM) should be; they should only be used (if at all) to help get a better general idea of what is involved in a topic, who some of the major actors are, where certain events took place, or what has happened recently (perhaps in the previous year or so). But if Internet sources are to be used, even for such basic tasks, students must be sure to evaluate each source carefully.
Last updated: 6 July 2008
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