The internet’s seemingly infinite volume of information can be a researcher’s best friend and worst enemy. It all depends, of course, if the info and data you glean from it are valid. Often, you know whether or not to trust a particular source based on your previous experiences and the general reputation of the person, company or organisation.
Yet, more often you’re likely to be uncertain about the source’s credibility. The beauty of the internet is that it can lead you to potentially illuminating information from sources you’ve never heard of or encountered before. When that’s the case, what can you do to assess the validity of the information?
Use the following questions as a handy guide to help determine if the source deserves your trust.
While there are exceptions to this, and the points that follow, you should be wary of information that doesn’t reside on website with a “.com.” “.org,” “.edu,”“.gov” url suffix or sites that use a country-specific suffix, such as “.de” for Germany or “.ca” for Canada. Generally, content on sites with “.biz,” “.info,” “.expert” and similar suffixes should be approached with caution. Often, websites with these more unconventional suffixes are newer sites that couldn’t acquire a conventional suffix because the most obvious or appropriate ones have already been taken. New doesn’t necessarily mean untrustworthy, of course, but longevity does matter. We turn to that point next.
Just because a company or organisation has been around for, say, decades, doesn’t mean that its data or information is, therefore, beyond scrutiny. Even the oldest, most reliable sources sometimes get it wrong. However, sources that have been around for a while typically have earned their tenure by being, among other things, generally reliable and accurate. So research the source and see just how long they’ve been sharing content as one more metric by which to gauge how much trust you can confidently place in their data.
When encountering unknown sources of information, examine what companies, organisations and thought-leaders with whom they affiliate. Sources can, and should be, judged in part by the friends they keep. Does the source in question have a relationship with, say, an esteemed university or a discerning thought leader? Does the source have established certifications or other credentials? These are good signs as trustworthy sources almost always painstakingly vet those they choose to partner with in some way.
Credible, trustworthy online sources typically operate in a transparent manner. This can manifest itself in many ways, small and large. For instance, reliable sources generally make their addresses and contact information, including email addresses, readily available on their website. They also note any consequential affiliations with other companies or organisations. Perhaps most telling of all, trusted sources typically invite comments—including criticisms or opposing points of view—on the content that they publish. Sources that aren’t transparent are usually so because they have something to hide, which is rarely, if ever, a positive sign.
Experienced researchers develop keen instincts that they can tap into when evaluating a source’s validity. But whether one is new to research or a veteran, one must keep their guard up at all times. It’s only human to tend to place more trust in a source that’s telling us what we want or expect to hear. Likewise, we all have tendencies to place less trust in those sources sharing information that challenges or otherwise threatens our preconceived notions or sense of where our research project is headed. Of course, these are exactly the moments when we should be self-aware enough to know that we can’t just rely on our guts, but instead have to use our powers of analysis to examine if the source is trustworthy, regardless of whether we do or do not want them to be.
While the internet offers us so much that is worthwhile to our research efforts, there is, unfortunately, virtually unimaginable amounts of data and information that may seem smart and accurate but is actually neither. When you’re not sure if you should trust a source, ask the questions above to help make your determination with confidence.
Learn more about professional fact checking and how to fact check like a pro with our professional tip sheet here.