Davidson, N.C.  

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    How credible is that site? Check it out before you cite

By David Boraks
The Charlotte Observer/Knight-Ridder Newspapers, January 27, 1997

The student at Davidson College, near Charlotte, N.C., innocently turned to the Internet for help researching a paper on the origins of the AIDS virus.

Most of what she had found, both in printed and Internet sources, listed the conventional and widely accepted theories that the disease began among primates in Africa or in an isolated human population. She cited them, offering arguments for and against the theories.

Then she found an obscure World Wide Web site, not affiliated with any research or governmental group, that outlined in elaborate, if sometimes confusing, detail how the virus was supposedly invented in secret U.S. military laboratories as part of a biological warfare research project. She accepted it at face value and made it the central argument of her paper.

Her professors made her rewrite the essay. Why? Because the Web site she used didn't pass the usual tests for determining whether information is reliable enough for citation in an academic paper.

"Any time you have a topic that is potentially controversial, you're likely to run across these kinds of sites," said Frank Molinek, head of serials and government documents at Davidson's E.H. Little Library. "You find students assuming that what's at these sites is the same sort of thing as if you were reading a scholarly journal."

It's not.

Although the Internet can speed and simplify research, teachers and librarians say it also has added an unexpected and difficult challenge -- helping students learn to sift the
good from the bad.

Since last fall, Molinek has warned of the pitfalls of online research during Internet orientation sessions for Davidson students. He is adamant that there are many benefits to using the Internet, but the information found there must be put to the same tests as printed information.

Molinek and other college librarians offer these tips for judging the value of Internet sites:

What is the site's purpose? Will its information be unbiased?

Who sponsors the site? What are the organization's values or goals? Can you contact the sponsors should questions arise?

Is the information well-documented? Does it provide citations to sources used in obtaining the information? Are individual articles signed or attributed?

What are the author's credentials? Is the author cited frequently in other sources?

Lastly, how does the value of the Web-based information you've found compare with other available sources, such as print?

"A lot of it's real common-sensical," Molinek said. He said librarians and scholars have made careful decisions about what information students will find on a library's shelves. But, "when they sit down at the computer, they become responsible for keeping in mind the things that we as information-gatherers keep in mind."

Students most likely to get in trouble are those who rely only on the Internet.

"There is good information out there," said Lou Ortmayer, a Davidson political science professor, "but it doesn't substitute for library research. So you'd better not give me
a paper that cites only Internet sources."

Updated 7 July 2007