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How to Scrutinize Online Research

written by: Ashley Hansen•edited by: Jacqueline Chinappi•updated: 1/21/2010

While you're completing an online degree or certificate, it's convenient to also do the majority of your research online. Even though you don't have the benefit of a campus library, you can use these techniques to find quality research online.

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    Website Affiliation

    The first thing to note about any website is whether it is affiliated with a professional, academic or government organization. Look for an "About" page on a website that clearly explains what individual or organization has provided the information on the site. Look for a clear header or footer that has organization contact information and other forms of transparency on the part of the publishing body. If you can't figure out where the information is coming from, don't use the source. You should also avoid personal and political blogs.

    One helpful technique for finding quality sources when you use a search engine is to look for certain top-level domain names. A top-level domain name is the last part of the root website address, like ".com" or ".org." Typically, ".gov" and ".edu" sites are reputable sites that have reliable information. You can include this as part of your search terms on a search engine. For example, government sites are the best resource for tax information, so you could type for "federal taxes" in the search box to find good resources for this topic.

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    Quality of Authorship

    If you are looking at an article, note if a specific name is attached to that piece of writing and whether there are credentials to go with the name. For example, if you are looking for information on diabetes you should note whether the author is a doctor or a specialist. If they are not a doctor, are they a representative of a foundation or nonprofit that is related to diabetes research? These facts will clue you in to the veracity of their writing.

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    Verification of Facts

    If the information is taken from a website that has no clear professional or scholarly affiliation, check if the information is supported by hyperlinks to the original source or references for the writing. If so, you should click on these links and use those websites as a reference rather than the original site.

    A good example of this is Wikipedia. Wikipedia should not be used as a resource on its own. However, it is an excellent source for a list of links related to the topic. At the bottom of each WIkipedia listing is a list of references used for that topic. Remember that you'll still have to scrutinize each of these links to see whether they are from quality sources.

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    Bias and Opinion

    Avoid using information from a website that contains personal point of view or opinion on the topic. Any information you use should be from an unbiased website or article which provides fact, not a personal agenda. Be careful about certain websites that are political or product-based. If you look on a company's website to find out about a product, don't use any claims that they make about the product unless it is backed up with statistics from a reputable source. Political information can be gleaned from a number of government or educational websites, so be careful to avoid bias, even on highly-regarded news sites.

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    During the course of your research, you'll get better at recognizing reliable sources by using these tips. Remember that as you learn how to scrutinize online research, there are always exceptions to the rule. Use your own personal judgement, and if you are unsure about a source it's better to not use it than to take a chance.

    Reference: John Hopkins University - Research Help