Skip to Main Content

Research 101

Hot Tips for Internet Research

How do excellent researchers conduct online research?

Expert researchers investigate every source they use, and think about each source critically.

You'll have to gather information and use your judgment to decide how much you'll trust a website. Those professors who accept websites as sources for research assignments will want you to be ready to explain why you believe the websites you've used are credible (believable, trustworthy).

Thinking Critically About Online Research

Questions to ask about every website you find:

  • Who is the author? The author can be a single person or an institution (company, university, non-profit organization, etc.)
    • What qualifies the author or institution to write about this subject - what relevant expertise or experience do they have?
    • What is their point of view - what do they believe is important?  There is more than one valid point of view on any complicated subject. 
    • Why are they telling us this? As you know, writing takes time and effort! No one builds a website without having a reason.
    • See more about these questions below.
  • Where did they get their information?
    • Their information might be from:
      • Original scientific research
      • Interviews of experts (who are those experts, and what are their qualifications?)
      • Published books and reports, and/or personal experience, and/or social media, and/or somewhere else.
    • They may not tell you directly where the information is from. You may have to use your critical reading skills to figure it out.
  • Very important: What do other people say about this person or group? 
    • Google them and find out what others say --  this is a practice called lateral reading (see below)
      • If you find people who praise and trust them, who are those people, and what do you think of them?
      • If you find people who dislike and distrust them, who are those people, and what do you think of them?

Notice that using Google is not a shortcut. To do strong research, you have to do more work, to vet and assess each source to see if you should take it seriously.

There is a lot of good information available on the open web, but every website must be critically considered. This is especially important if you're new to a subject as you'll have to take the time to investigate the authors behind each site to weigh its trustworthiness.

Authority: Who Wrote This? Why Should I Trust Them?

Who wrote this? How much do I trust the author?

Everything that conveys information--an article, a video, a book, a film, a website--has at least one author. The author can be a person, or it could be an institution. Usually you should be able to see both the individual and the institution they work for, for example:

  • individual: a reporter-->institution: the newspaper that employs the reporter
  • individual: a human rights investigator documents rights abuses-->institution: the non-profit human rights organization that employs the investigator
  • individual: a union leader writes an editorial-->institution: the union

A newspaper, an academic journal, a website belonging to:

  • a for-profit business
  • a university, a non-profit organization
  • a religious organization
  • a government agency.

What kind of knowledge or experience do they have about this topic?

People gain authority in different ways. Individuals may have:

  • Educational credentials
    • For example, an advanced degree earned after years of study
  • Professional Experience
    • For example being a scientist, lawyer, doctor, nurse, after undergoing training in your field
  • Life Experience
    • Personal experiences qualify you to speak about what those experiences felt like and your own observations or strategies you may have used personally.
      • Some primary sources are documents that show what someone's personal experience was.
      • However, most of your research assignments will ask you to find writing that goes beyond individual experience to an analysis from a more systemic viewpoint, meaning not just what one person has experienced, but broader patterns, theories, events, and issues.

What is their point of view?

  • All writers have a point of view. Understanding where someone is coming from is part of understanding their writing. You can learn more about someone's point of view by googling them to see what others think of them (see Lateral Reading below).
  • How credible are they?



What does "credibility" mean?

  • Something that is "credible" is believable. A credible source is one you have good reasons to believe.

What makes a source credible?

  • The person/group that wrote it is well-informed, knowledgeable, and fair.
  • The logic and arguments in the source are well thought out.
  • The evidence presented comes from good sources of data.
  • The writing is done in good faith. This means:
    • If the source includes original research, the research methods used were strong, and the researchers were honestly trying to discover something and reporting their discoveries as they understood them.
    • If the source includes theories about how things work, the writers are honestly proposing a theory that makes sense to them and showing evidence that supports their theory.

How can I tell if a source is credible?

  • There is no magic list! Determining credibility involves investigation, critical judgment, and reflection.
  • It can be time-consuming when you are researching a topic that you have not yet read much about.
  • The more you read about a topic and come to know who trusted authors and institutions are within a field, the less time it will take you to assess credibility.

Can a credible source still be incorrect?

  • Yes: Knowledge is always evolving and changing as people discover new things, so sometimes a source used to be correct but is outdated.
  • Yes: Sometimes human beings make honest mistakes.

Can a reader disagree or argue with a credible source?

  • Absolutely!

This is what scholars do - they have conversations about knowledge, including debates in which credible sources argue with each other. Most truths in the world are complex, and there is seldom "one right answer" to a complex question. 

How Strong is Their Argument?

Why did they write it? 

  • Every piece of writing takes time and effort. No one accidentally creates a website or writes a book or article. Understanding the author's purpose helps you understand the writing.

Does what they're saying make sense? 

  • They should back up any argument with evidence. Where is that evidence from?

Some questions to guide you as you assess the strength of the argument:

What kinds of arguments do they use?

  • are they appealing to our logic? If so, does their argument logically make sense?
  • are they appealing to our feelings? To an ethical or religious value that we might share with them?
  • do they show evidence, and if so where do they get it from?

Where did they get their information? Do they even tell us?

  • References and citations are one way to tell us, quotes are another. If a source does not tell you where it got crucial information from but use that information to back up an argument, that is not a good sign.
  • Once you know where the author got his/her information, investigate that source a bit - is it from someone or some organization that is trustworthy?

Are they fair to opposing views?

Let’s say I disagree with Maria, and I’m trying to convince you she’s wrong and I’m right. I could either:

  • Describe what Maria’s argument is in a way that she thinks is fair, then give you reasons why my argument is better, or
  • Describe what her argument in a way that she doesn't think is accurate,  then tell you reasons why I think my argument is better.

Which approach would be more convincing to you?

Lateral reading as a strategy to assess internet sources

"Lateral reading" is a strategy for investigating a website's author beyond their own website.

Googling them can help you learn what others in their field say about them. Are they trusted and respected by others (and which others)? Are they widely perceived to be inaccurate or unfair? Finding out what others say about a source is sometimes called lateral reading (see video below).