Using and evaluating websites
Using websites in academic study
Websites can provide valuable evidence to support your discussion, just like books or paper journals. For instance, many authoritative sources such as academic institutions, government and research bodies, or charities use the internet to make important data available as quickly and freely as possible. Journal articles are also often available online, and an increasing number of journals are only available electronically.
However, unlike academic books and journals which are usually peer-reviewed before being published, websites can potentially be written by anyone. This means you do need to spend more time assessing their reliability.
It is important you make sure you refer to a variety of sources in your assessments, do not just cite websites, as this demonstrates a limited range of research. Using a mixture of books, journals and websites will usually produce the best results.
Finding online resources
A straightforward Google search is easy, but it will return a lot of information, most of which will be irrelevant or not at the right level to use in your work. Search thoughtfully to save wasting time.
- Choose your search terms carefully.
- Use speech marks to search for a phrase rather than separate words.
- Use advanced search features to limit language or year.
- Consider whether there are synonyms for your search terms that you could also try.
Using a dedicated academic search engine like Google Scholar can search peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, abstracts, and articles. However, not everything is available on Scholar, if you rely solely on it, you will miss something important.
Instead, go straight to reputable sources available in the elibrary.
Evaluating websites and online sources
Consider the Authority
- Who is responsible for the webpage
- Is it a reliable organisation with authors that are reputable and hold industry accreditations
- Can you trust them
Take note of accuracy and reliability
- Check the information correct
- Take note of spellings and grammar
- Is it complete, or are they just giving one point of view
- Do they have their own agenda e.g. political organisations
- Consider if the information is fact or opinion
- Notice if the information is backed up by evidence
- Observe if the evidence is based on research
- Consider if it is reliable
- Pay attention to how up to date the page is, taking note of how regularly it is updated, as you do not want to quote out-of-date information
Audience / relevance
- Ensure the information is at the right level to be quoted in your assessment
- If the site is well-structured and easy to navigate
- Ensure the links from the page are up-to-date and valid
If it is well designed and maintained, then you can feel more confident about the information it provides.
Wikipedia can provide a brief introduction to a complex topic and give you an overview from which you can then do further in-depth research. You would not cite Wikipedia, but it can get you started thinking about the topic. Information on Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, so may be unreliable, and it often is not at the correct level for university work.
A guide to domain names
You can quickly evaluate the authority of a website by looking at the URL of a website. This can help you find out who or what has created the website, and possibly their intent. The main part that you want is what is called the top level domain name, which is normally the last segment of a domain name which appears after the dot.
For example: www.UCSD.ac.uk
The top level domain name is highlighted in bold.
Below are some common examples of domain names which you may come across. Note that even if the website comes from an official organisation, you will still need to verify the information provided.
Domain names and who they are published by
.ac.uk a UK university
.gov.uk the UK government
.nhs.uk the NHS
.org Used by non-profit organisations
.edu an American university
.com or .co.uk a commercial organisation.
(These websites may intend to sell you products rather than provide unbiased information)