There are currently 1.5 billion sites on the Internet. The sheer volume of content on the web is a glowing testament to open-source free expression and human communication on a global scale unseen prior to the Internet’s conception. Although it’s fun to peruse your favorite sites for entertaining content, using the Internet for research purposes demands a more scrutinizing eye. New and experienced researchers must be equipped with the proper tools to analyze data for accuracy, but it can be difficult to determine just what “accurate data” looks like. Here is a (somewhat) brief overview of a few types of sources any researcher can rely on as well as a few cautionary tips on what to watch out for.
1. Websites: More than Entertainment
How to determine if a website is a credible source
All of us start at Google when looking for a certain data point. What to do after your Google search comes back with millions of results, however, can get a little tricky. Websites that end in .edu and .gov are probably the best places to start your research as they are university and government sites respectively.
Universities are hubs for innovative and reliable research. University departments post information that they’ve researched on their website. Therefore, most university websites are great places to find reputable sources of data. Government entities are also considered reliable, authoritative sources because it is generally assumed that the main goal for government’s collection and publication of data is to inform the public.
What to watch out for when using a website as a source
You should be more scrutinizing when looking at data on websites that end in .com, .net., .info., etc. There are a few things you can look for to determine if the information on these sites is accurate.
• If a website article has an author listed, research the author to see if this person is knowledgeable in the field he/she is writing about. For instance, a .com website article about economics written by an economics professor can be a reliable source.
• Pay attention to the date of the article. Data more than 10-15 years old is outdated and, most times, unreliable.
• Go with what you know. If National Geographic, for instance, says one thing while a virtually unknown .info site contradicts them, it might be best to use National Geographic as the more reliable source.
Examples of reliable websites
Government agencies like NASA have accessible websites which makes finding data easier for the public. If you are interested in finding university research, a great place to start is Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, which produces breakthrough environmental knowledge and solutions to sustain people and the planet. There are also non-profit organizations like the Population Research Bureau whose mission is to provide accurate and up-to-date data to fellow researchers.
2. Academic Journals: Excellent Sources of Hard Data
How to determine if an academic journal is a credible source
Ever wonder where journalists get data like that of global warming’s effect on Canada Jays’ food supplies? More often than not, data is gathered from academic journals. These journals offer researchers the opportunity to publish their research for students, journalists and other researchers to use and interpret for their own scientific needs. The main reason academic journals are a reliable resource is due to peer-review. Peer-reviewing, when another qualified person fact-checks a researcher’s findings, is a necessary step to ensure the veracity of the claims in the research and to assure anyone who analyzes the data for their own research is starting on a solid base.
What to watch out for when sourcing academic journals
Research bias can very much affect the outcome of data collection so it is important to be aware of it. Often a variety of factors, including funding origins, can have an impact on how data is collected and analyzed. This is why it is important to always review multiple sources when looking at certain data points.
Examples of reliable academic journals and journal databases
Academic journals are now more accessible than ever. Databases like the Public Library of Science and the Directory of Open Access Journals offer access to thousands of journals and reports for researchers to gather hard data easily and at no cost (the cost to access some academic journals can be a hindrance for many researchers).
3. News Outlets: The Accessible Option
How to determine if a news outlet is a credible source
We all read news articles to keep up with local and national events, politics, and even entertainment. For that reason, newspapers and online news sites are great sources for a more palatable version of the data seen in scholarly research. Often, especially when reporting on science-heavy materials, news articles use more accessible language in order to reach a wider audience. This means, if you’re having difficulty understanding the data found in an academic journal, a news article could be a way to understand said data better.
What to watch out for when using news outlets as a source for research
Even though news outlets are more accessible, it’s important to read the source material news outlets pull their information from. Often, news outlets interpret data in oversimplified ways that could actually obscure the conclusion of the original source. Also, be aware of opinion-based news sources. Opinion articles do not make great sources for data. Most times op-eds are used to garner attention and create more traffic to a news site. While op-eds may not necessarily be untrue, they are based on opinion and are highly subjective. Unless the data used to form the opinion in the op-ed can be easily found, take what you read with a grain of salt.
Examples of reliable news outlets
News outlets like The Guardian and The Atlantic have a popular following and a history of being credible sources. For science news, LiveScience is also valued as a credible source for research.
4. Honorable Mention: Wikipedia
Is Wikipedia a credible source for research?
Wikipedia has a not-so-stellar reputation and for good reason: all of the articles are open-sourced and a collaborative effort. This means literally anyone can write an article about any topic regardless of authority or experience. However, Wikipedia is a great place to start your research. While the articles are indeed a group effort, Wikipedia still requires authors to list their sources for the information in the articles and will flag an article if any information has not been properly cited. These references can aid in further research on your topic.
Putting Credible Sources to Use
With the overwhelming amount of information out there thanks to the Internet, it may seem impossible to know what is accurate. Furthermore, scrutinizing data can be a time-consuming process, one which may not seem appealing to a younger researcher who just needs a quick data point for a school project. However, now more than ever before, data research demands scrutiny in order to ensure all researchers are equipped with the most accurate, trustworthy data. Hopefully, the tips found here will be helpful and can make your research easier.