We’ve all been there- arguing with someone on social media or in person, and someone makes a claim which seems ridiculous. So you do the obvious thing and ask them to provide evidence. So they do. A random website. They think they have won- they posted a website as ‘evidence’ after all. But you know that not all websites are equal and few are legitimate sources of information. So begins this article.
It’s common knowledge, or at least it should be, that not all websites are accurate or reliable. But how do you know which ones to use? Here are some pointers for different types of articles:
- Government websites are usually good sources for legal issues, advice, and (usually) unbiased information. Just make sure the website was recently updated (usually found at the bottom of the page), else the information may have changed and no longer be accurate.
- ‘www. <insert random website here>. com’ is typically not a reliable source of information. There is a reason why few to no websites make it to the reference list of peer-reviewed academic papers. They’re just not reliable. Anyone can make a website and post whatever they wish. Even if 4+ different website corroborate each other, it doesn’t mean it’s accurate. One website may have posted something, and the others simply copied/cited from that original website. As a result, they are all wrong. They corroborate each other, this is true, but they corroborate incorrect information.
Also be wary of websites and articles written by people with varying degrees as written in their ‘bio’, especially if the degree they claim to have is unrelated to the content they are writing. Although they are usually OK sources, you have to stop and ask yourself why it is they are publishing on a free webpage rather than in a reputable peer-reviewed journal. It may be they have no desire to publish in a journal (although who wouldn’t want to share their knowledge to like-minded people in the scientific community?), or they can’t afford to properly publish their work. Or, it may be that they hold a particular view which no others in that field agree with, hence why it was not posted in a peer-reviewed journal.
- Organisations, i.e. websites that end in ‘. org’ are sometimes suitable sources also, although it depends on the context. You have to be aware of any agendas they may have and how this affects their information credibility, for example, an organization which promotes healthy eating habits is not likely to state ‘the occasional biscuit is OK as part of a balanced diet’, nor is a vegan organization going to mention any health benefits of eating animal products.
As such, it often pays to be skeptical about organizations, and validate their information with further research from peer-reviewed sources.
- Peer reviewed articles go through rigorous editing processes and, depending on the impact factor of the journal, some are harder to get published than others. The impact factor is a measure of how good/reliable/reputable the journal, as a whole, is and relates citations to articles published. Articles are read and re-read by multiple other qualified experts within that field. If the information can be corroborated, it has a chance to get published. If not, it will be returned for further editing. The full process is nicely described in a flowchart by journal publisher Elsevier found here. Peer-reviewed is really the only acceptable source of information.
It is true that many journals require a typically paid subscription to gain access to their content or access via your university login details, many people don’t understand the terminology of the articles, and some articles can be over 10 pages long (& are therefore unappealing for a quick read to prove a point). However, all peer-reviewed articles, at least those in the field of science, follow a standard format. They all start with an abstract and end with a conclusion. The abstract is usually always available to read for free, even in paid journals. It has all the information you need in one quick-to-read handy paragraph. It outlines the aim of the study, the materials and methods, the results, the discussion of the results and the main conclusions drawn from the study. That’s usually enough to prove a quick point, especially if you can cite multiple studies with similar results.
Google scholar, URL: https://scholar.google.com.au/ is a free to access search engine for peer-reviewed materials. Not all the articles are free to view, however, abstracts can usually be sourced for free. To access google scholar, simply type ‘scholar’ into your Google search bar and click the first result. Once in Google scholar, search results can be sorted by year and relevance. Typically more recent studies are what you want to search for, as science is often being updated and improved.
- Biased websites. If you are in a debate about how to eat healthy, and your source is ‘www .eatinghealthy. com’, it’s probably going to be biased and have no mention about how moderation/balance is key. If your argument is against science in general, and your source is ‘www. scienceisfake. org’ it’s also highly likely to be a bad source. The opposite is also true (and this one I see farrrrr too often), if you are arguing about religion and quote a website ‘www. religionisreal. com’ you probably can’t rely on them to express both sides to the story either. In all of these cases, the bias is strong. They are heavily swung in one direction instead of taking an unbiased ‘on the fence’ perspective to express both sides of the argument. These types of websites cannot be relied on to back yourself as evidence in a debate.
- Digital Media- Newspapers, Social media publishers, news reporters, magazines etc. These are also often biased and/or worded in such a way to attract viewers/readers as this is what keeps their work in the spotlight. The media are notorious for only reporting one side to the story, and printing bad news instead of good news, as the sad reality is headlines like ‘mass murder’ tends to sell more papers than ‘cute puppies’. Furthermore, certain details are often omitted for various reasons e.g. public unrest, privacy issues, legal obligations etc. Of course, articles written by various social media pages are likely just opinion pieces, and not factual. The same is true for many digital media stories in fact.
As a general rule, check the reference list/in-text citations (if they exists) whether they are encoded in the text as I have done or written in proper referencing styles, for web pages you visit. If they are using reputable journal articles as references, you can probably trust them too. If they are referencing Wikipedia, chances are they’re unreliable. Also in peer-reviewed articles, it’s a good idea to check reference lists as well, as you can find out more information that way.
If no reference list exists, start asking questions about the article/website:
- Who wrote it?
- Who do they work for?
- What is their personal/company agenda?
- How recently was the article updated?
- What does this person/company stand for?
- What are their credentials/education on the matter?
- Can this information be validated from peer-reviewed sources?
- Has the article used phrases such as “I think”, “I believe” i.e. is it opinionated rather than factual?
If you can’t answer many of these questions about the article, or get mainly negative answers, chances are it’s not reliable and should not be used as evidence.
Of course, as always, there are exceptions to the rule, and this article serves to better guide your judgement when selecting articles in future.
Article Image: http://libweb.anglia.ac.uk/images/reference.jpg