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Evaluating information & data: Verify credibility non-academic online sources

Verifying credibility non-academic online sources

The credibility of the author is very important in determining the quality of a source. Academic publications have their own quality check for authors: in general only scholars active in academia are allowed to publish. And even then only in their own, or a closely related field. Non-academic sources on the other hand lack this quality check: anyone can write anything about everything, especially online.

The first thing you should do when you are looking for non-academic sources, is find out who exactly wrote the text. In most print texts the author’s name is clearly visible. With web content this is often not the case. So how do you know who is the author of an anonymously published online source?

Try to find out who created the website where you found the text. If there is no author name indicated, look for links to ‘About (Us)’, ‘Colophon’, ‘Contact’ or ‘Copyright’ pages. Here you can find out more about the mission of the individual or organisation who created the website. URLs give you a rough indication of the author (creator of the website/page):

  • .gov indicates it’s a government site: .gov (United States), (United Kingdom), (Australia), (China), etc. Most non-English language countries have similar government domain URLs. Examples would be (Germany) or (the Netherlands);
  • .edu is reserved for websites with educational purposes;
  • .org means it is (mostly) for non-profit;
  • .com indicates a commercial organisations.

However, since it is easy for anyone to buy an unclaimed .com, .net or .org site, we should not go on face value. A site that looks well produced and has an authentic looking domain name may still be a political hoax, false company or satirical prank. Google it and see what other people are saying about the site.

Tip: When you search via a search engine like Google, you are often directed to a specific page deep within the site. Go to ‘home’ or shorten the URL to its base to get to the main page.

When you have established the authorship of the source, you can use that knowledge to assess its quality. Not all authors have the same amount of authority on the topic they write about. In the next exercise you will rank the sources from the previous exercise, based on the credibility of the author.

But remember: credibility is not the only evaluation criteria you should use! Have a look at the module Evaluating non-academic sources and authors to find out more about the other criteria.

Exercise Credibility: who is the author?

What kind of author are we dealing with? Match the source with the corresponding author type.

Exercise What is the credibility of the author?

What is the quality of the source, based on the credibility of the author? Rank the following sources from low to high credibility.