Blogs. Wikis. Social networks. Often populated with user-generated content, these Web 2.0 tools can provide a wealth of useful and entertaining information, and we consult them on a regular basis. But should students consider them reliable sources of information for formal research papers?

Of course, in some respects, it depends on the nature of the project. However, given the right circumstances, these could potentially be helpful means of discovering worthwhile material. In The Wadsworth Guide to Research, Second Edition, Susan Miller-Cochran and Rochelle Rodrigo offer guidance for how students might potentially use these resources ethically and effectively.

  • Given the ease with which information can appear on the Web, evaluate an online resource with at least as much diligence as you would any traditionally published resource. For example: because many wikis are populated via open collaboration, the time invested in reviewing who’s behind the writing and editing of the material can help establish the site’s relative credibility and trustworthiness as a resource (pp. 79-80). For this reason, these sites generally serve better as a source for background information about a topic at the start of the research process, or as a means of identifying other potential resources, as provided in an entry’s citation list or bibliography (p. 80).
  • When considering the reliability of a website, be sure to ask: Who is the author or “sponsor” of the page? This could be an individual, a group of people, or perhaps even an organization. If this information is not provided by any means, you are right to view the information provided at the site with uncertainty. Also note the currency of the material on the site, especially if up-to-date data is required for a project. If the content has not been updated recently, you would be wise to seek out an alternate source (p. 83).
  • Blogs can also be helpful sources (and we’re glad you’ve chosen to read ours!) — yet here, too, one should pay special attention to the authorship and the organization behind the blog’s publication. Because people can easily establish themselves as “bloggers,” while providing information that is simply their opinion (or is false), identifying the author can tell you much about the material’s reliability. If you cannot find out who is behind the blog, it pays to proceed with extreme caution (p. 85).
  • Social networking sites and online communities may be useful means of engaging with other people and determining their thoughts, opinions, and experiences regarding a given subject. However, it is important that proper ethical procedures for working with human subjects be followed (p. 87). (Your institution may have specific policies or procedures that govern work with human participants or research of this nature.)

Inevitably, today’s students will be interested in using these types of resources. Though you may ultimately decide that they aren’t appropriate for your particular assignment, it does help to know that there are indeed some ways that the information they provide can be used with care and potential benefit.

What do you think? Do you encourage students to use Web 2.0 sources for research papers? Or, do you require your students to rely solely on traditionally published and vetted materials? Share your insights in the comments section below.

Reference: Content adapted from Miller-Cochran, Susan and Rodrigo, Rochelle. The Wadsworth Guide to Research, Second Edition. 2014. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.