This question came up when a professor assigned a limitation on the number of electronic or web-based resources her students could use in their bibliography. It’s referring to the fact that many journals are both printed and made available via the web. Often the two versions look identical, as the online version is a scanned PDF of the print journal.
My blanket answer is: ask your prof. They may have specific reasons for assigning you resource limitations – usually because they want you to learn something new. One of Brescia’s Religious Studies professors, for example, wants students to explore print journals specifically for an assignment, so finding the same journal online would be beyond the point.
In general, though, professors want you to use journal articles for your assignments, because they’re credible and academic. Usually profs will place a limitation on the number of websites they want you to use, because these resources are less reliable.
Glance over your assignment instructions again and if you still aren’t sure, a quick email to your professor will give you an answer.
First thing’s first: does your professor want you to use websites? If your assignment instructions don’t say, make sure to run it by your instructor.
For the most part, judge a website like you would any other resource (see: the AA-BB-C’s blog post). In particular, look at the following:
- Who wrote it? This is often super hard to find on a website, but look at the “About” page or the “Contact Us” page. Then think about who the author is – does it say? Are they an expert in the field? Do you know? Can you Google them in 30 seconds and find your answer?
- Where did they get their information? If no reference list is included, that’s a bad sign. Look for a “reading list” or a page that says “for more information,” anything like that. A good site will give you this information, or citations along the bottom of the page.
- How current is the site? Don’t trust the “last updated” date, either: this can be set to automatically update by web programmers, something you don’t have to worry about with other forms of research. Look at their information: is it similar to the other research you’ve been doing? Are their citations up to date? Is every single page the same from one week to the next (especially the home page?) It’s a bad sign if a website doesn’t update their homepage every few days.
- Who is the site written for? If a website has been produced for children, obviously the information will be different from professional website. If it’s an organization, consider who would be using the site: this will help point out any biases that may exist.
- Is there a sponsor of the website? Is there some company’s brand flashing around, or a link at the bottom of the page that says “sponsor”? Or are there Google advertisements all over the place? For our Health Science friends, beware the sites that are sponsored by drug companies: they often have ulterior motives!
While using websites is both tricky and useful, it’s important to think about them before citing them in your bibliography. The above steps don’t have to be too time-consuming, either. Make it a habit to start looking for this information while you read the site.
An awkward segue: I have a blog post about citing websites, too, if you need it.
Good luck with your website evaluation!
Obviously the exact formatting of citations depends on the style you’ve been asked to use (i.e. APA, MLA, Uniform/ICMJE Requirements, etc). You won’t need all of the information below for every single citation style. But in general you need to try to find the same type of information you would in a print resource.
- Look for whoever wrote the page. If it’s not listed at the bottom or the top of the page/article that you’re using, look on the “contact us” page or “about us” page of the website.
- You may not find an individual author. This is okay (if you feel that the site is reputable and reliable). In most citation styles, you would just skip this information.
- The organization responsible for providing the website is often the author – especially when it’s a government site, or a major organization like the American Psychological Association or the Canadian Diabetes Association.
- You will likely need to find two titles: the name of the webpage you’re using, and the name of the overall website that page falls under. My example below demonstrates this: the webpage name is “Bipolar disorder – what are the symptoms?” while the website name is Mind Your Mind. I will need both of these pieces of information for my citation.
- Often, this is just the name of the website – what you’re looking for is who produces or sponsors the site.
- In a big organization, like the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the publisher is the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
- Some not-for-profit organizations (and even some for-profit sites) will have a sponsor who pays for their site. This information could be little, like an icon on the bottom of the page so look carefully! [I’ve included an example from WebMD below so you can see what I mean. In this case, the sponsor is NCI, but I only found that information by scrolling down the page].
- If you can’t find a publisher or sponsor (i.e. if it’s an average person’s website rather than an organization’s) make sure to include “n.p.” in your citation where the publishing information should go (as in “no publisher”).
- Location of Publication
- Not all citation styles require this information, and it’s often tricky to find. Just try your best!
- Date of Publication
- Normally this information is found at the bottom of the page, next to the words “last updated.”
- If you see a website that has a date like “c2010”, that’s actually the copyright date, not the date of publication. If this is the only date you can find, make sure to include the “c” in your citation.
- If you can’t find a date of publication anywhere on the site and you still want to use it in your bibliography, most citation styles require you to say “n.d.” in your citation where the date should go (as in “no date”). See my examples below so you know what I mean.
- Estimated Length or Number of Pages
- If you are citing a PDF from a website, this part’s easy. But for normal websites, some citation styles require you to count the number of paragraphs on the page that you’re using. Have fun!
- Accessed Date or Retrieved Date or Cited Date
- Make sure to record the date that you looked at the website, in case the content is updated.
- Some citation styles don’t require this anymore, when you look at their manual. Make sure to check with your professor before skipping this information, though.
Author, A. A. (Date). Title of website. Retrieved from URL.
Kessy, S. S. A, & Urio, F. M. (2006). The contribution of microfinance institutions to poverty reduction in Tanzania. Retrieved from http://www.repoa.or.tz/documents_storage/Publications/Reports/06.3_Kessy_and_Urio.pdf
ICMJE Requirements (previously known as Uniform Requirements)
Title of website [Internet]. Location of site sponsor/publisher: Sponsor/Publisher; Copyright date [updated Date; cited Date]. Available from: URL.
Cancer-Pain.org [Internet]. New York: Association of Cancer Online Resources, Inc; c.2000-2010 [updated 2010 May 16; cited 2011 Oct 3]. Available from: http://www.cancer-pain.org.
Author, First Name. Title of Source. Publisher, Date, Location.
Eaves, Morris. The William Blake Archive. Lib. of Cong., 28 Sept. 2007, http://www.blakearchive.org/blake.