What is Credible Information?Donald T. Hawkins
ONLINE, September 1999
|The WWW-VL is an outstanding comprehensive resource on Web site quality ...|
I approached the subject from the viewpoint that information users want credible information. The dictionary definition of "credible" is "believable," "plausible," or "worthy of confidence." The root word is from the Latin credere, meaning "to believe." "Plausible," a synonym, means "seemingly or apparently valid," and comes from the Latin plausibilis, and means "deserving applause."
Figure 1 shows the major steps in the process of producing an article for publication in a scholarly journal. The steps with a small hurdle near them represent opportunities for review, feedback to the author, and revision. The hurdle indicates that those steps are important milestones that must be passed before the process can continue. It is important to note that feedback to the author frequently results in significant revisions or changes to the document. The author might even decide not to proceed with further writing if, for example, the document has major flaws, the research upon which it is based is incomplete or faulty, or if it duplicates research done elsewhere.
The process illustrated here is rigorous, and it usually ensures that only high-quality articles are published. It is rare that obvious errors survive the extensive reviews that take place before an article appears in print. Major drawbacks to this process are the amount of time between completion of the research by the author and an article appearing in print (which is why preprint circulation has come into favor) and problems with the peer review process.
Now, contrast that process to publishing on the Web (Figure 2). It is immediately obvious that the Web publishing process is much shorter than the traditional publishing process, and there are no review hurdles to be overcome. As soon as the first version of the report is written, it can be posted on a Web site. Once there, it can remain indefinitely or be removed at the author's discretion. There is no quality control in the Web publishing process. (Of course, many organizations, for proprietary reasons, prohibit their employees from posting material on a public Web site, and others have restrictions and internal procedures that must be followed before posting.)
Because of the lack of a review process and the ease of posting, the question of credible information is much more critical when dealing with information taken from the Internet. Some people think the Internet is a wonderful repository of information on almost any subject. Others view it as a cultural garbage dump, containing everything found in society--from the best to the worst. Still others, because of the impressive technological capabilities of the Web (such as Java, etc.), view it as bad information in impressive packaging, leading to the widespread view that all information available on the Web is shallow, misleading, and not credible. (These opinions are not mutually exclusive. All of them may be true--one assumes at different times--depending the purpose for which one is using the Web.)
It is striking to note that the criteria deemed important by the Web site authors fall into four distinct groups. The three criteria occurring most often were mentioned by ten or more of the authors, the next group were mentioned by five or six authors, the next by two or three authors, and the last group were mentioned by only one author. Although these data are based on only 14 Web sites, they can be used to construct a rank-ordered list of criteria for deciding whether a Web site contains credible information. The Table at left presents such a list, along with some questions that one might ask to decide whether the information obtained from a Web site is credible.
Additional or more stringent evaluation criteria should be used for Web-based sources than for print sources. Methods of evaluating print sources have evolved over many years and have stood the test of time. The Web is at most five or six years old, and it is constantly evolving. Information taken from it may not be of the same quality as information from a traditional print source. A popular misconception today is "If it is on the Internet, it must be (choose one) true, reliable, valid, correct." Those who hold this view may be in for a rude shock. The well-known adage, caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware) can be well revised for Web-based information as caveat lector (Let the reader beware)!
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Donald T. Hawkins (D.T.Hawkins@worldnet.att.net) is the Editor-in-Chief of Information Science Abstracts and Fulltext Sources Online, and the Editor of the ASIDIC Newsletter.
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