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REL 253 Science & Religion: Web Searching

Evaluating Sources

As you search, keep track of the most promising sources and then look at them closely, asking yourself these questions.

  • Is it relevant? Does this source help me accomplish my task?
  • Is it timely? Is it too dated? 
  • Is it written for an appropriate audience? Has it repackaged information in a way that oversimplifies it? Will my reader expect more technical or scholarly information than this? (Length also is a clue here - a scholarly article rarely is under 10 pages long.)
  • Is it authoritative? Are there clues that tell me why I (and my reader) should rely on this source? Who is the author and what are her/his credientials? (You might Google the author's name to fine some of this information if it is not provided.) What sources are used by the author to support her/his claims (and are there footnoes)? Why does the author present this information, and does that purpose suggest a particular bias? Does it analyze dispassionately - or advocate for a particular stance? (Advocacy isn't bad - but you may have to see how others approach the issues.)
  • Does it makes sense? Does the information hang together logically? Does it provide evidence for its claims that you find persuasive? 

When you aren't an expert, it may seem daunting to evaluate the work others have published, but a book's table of contents or an article's opening paragraphs will help establish relevance. The language it is written in will help you decide if it is scholarly enough and yet not too highly technical for your purposes. Information given about the author might help you decide how much an authority he or she is. For Web sources, follow links to information "about this site" or to an author's home page, or shorten the URL to everything up to the first slash to see what its parent page looks like. When in doubt, check with your instructor.

Compare: In addition to looking at the quality of individual sources, compare them so that you can see where there are differences and conflicts. Even if you are heading toward a particular conclusion, you want to discuss alternative perspectives so your reader gets the big picture.

Corroborate: If you feel as if you're going out on a limb, try to corroborate the information you want to use in another source. A reference librarian can help you do that.

Note, because there is such a wide variety of information from so many sources on the Web, it's extremely important to evaluate what you find using this criteria. Ironically, some of the Web sources that seem scholarly are quite out of date.  The Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, is a copy of a reference work pubished in 1917. The library has the up-to-date 2002 edition in the reference collection, but had to pay rather a lot of money for it. The one that is free online is so old it's no longer under copyright.?Unfortunately, though convenient, it's only useful if you want information about the Catholic church in 1917. A few things have changed since the

Tips for Successful Searching

The first question to ask is: Should I use the Web for this project or not? The Web is great for some topics, but is not a good place for others. In general, the  WEB IS NOT A GOOD SOURCE FOR SCHOLARLY RELIGIOUS STUIDES. It also is not good for finding finding literary criticism, scholarly analysis of social issues, or the kind of broad overview written by a noted scholar that a really good specialized encyclopedia can provide. In addition to its print resources, libraries often pay for resources that are accessed through the web; these aren't indexed in search engines. Some "free" sites for magazines and newspapers charge for using their archives; library databases offer them at no charge. Consider these steps as you plan a search:

  • Think about what you need and which key words might describe it.
  • Think about what organizations or government entities might provide information on your topic.
  • Use what you find to refine your search (such as the name of an organization or a government agency).
  • Limit a search to a given domain by including it in your search statement.For example, autism site:.gov will search for autism on government Websites. 
  • Limit a search by date using the "show search tools" link to left of your Google results
  • Use Wikipedia if you have a broad topic and your search results aren't turning up good material; then see if the links at the end of the article are useful.
  • Turn to Google Scholar or library database for research-based sources.

Use these strategies as you sort through your results:

  • Shorten a URL to get to a root page by deleting everything after the first slash.
  • Follow links to find out about the page's author or sponsoring agency.
  • Examine the URL to see where it originated. For example, URLs containing .k12 are hosted at elementary and secondary schools, so may be intended for a young audience; those ending in .gov are government agencies, so tend to be "official" information. Domains may include information about what country the site is from: .au for Australia, .uk for United Kingdom, and so on

google doodles

photo courtesy of stuck in customs

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