If you’ve spent any time on the Web, you know that the quality, credibility, and reliability of available information varies greatly. Though you may not be concerned about the academic credentials of someone who’s writing restaurant reviews or sports commentary, you do recognize that it’s critical to diligently vet the sources you rely upon for your research projects. However, this reality may come as a surprise to some of today’s students who are used to typing a few words into a search engine and choosing the first few results as their sole sources of information on any given topic.

Given that today’s digital-native students are more than likely going to use the Web as a research tool, you can help build their critical-thinking and research skills by providing guidelines that can help them identify reliable sites and steer clear of those that offer inaccurate, biased, or otherwise inappropriate material. In Research Strategies for a Digital Age, Fourth Edition, Bonnie L. Tensen offers a “Quick Check” that can help your students evaluate whether or not the information offered on a website is both reliable and appropriate for academic research:

Academic research on the Web requires mastery in evaluating the credibility of sources. You must carefully appraise the Web page to determine its purpose. Sarcasm and exaggeration reveal a biased opinion. Does the document present a well-reasoned, balanced approach to the topic? 

    • Purpose: Much of what appears on the Web is intended to sell or entertain. What is the goal of the site, and does it accomplish this in a fair-minded, scholarly manner? 
    • Source: Anonymity destroys credibility. Who is the document written by, and is it affiliated with a reliable organization?
    • Intended Audience: Much on the Web is designed for general consumption. Does the document acknowledge other sources and treat the topic with a certain amount of complexity?
    • Date of Publication: Good research requires up-to-date information. Has the page been updated regularly?
    • Appearance: You can tell something about a book by its cover. Is the Web site well-written and grammatically correct, and does the general layout of the page (graphics, design, etc.) appear scholarly?
    • Reputation: Nothing speaks louder than a good referral. Has the Web site received good reviews or been recommended in a summary or abstract? (Tensen, p. 88)


Reference: Tensen, Bonnie L. 2013. Research Strategies for a Digital Age, 4th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. 

© Cengage Learning.


How do you help students identify the types of sites that are appropriate for research projects? Share your ideas below.