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!
This is a very difficult question to answer and is totally dependent on the project that you’re working on. Many times, I find that students end up with too much research, though, rather than too little – a huge problem for me when I was completing my undergrad, as well. So knowing when to call it quits is a skill we all need to work on.
That said, there are some students who are not searching enough: consider the questions below as a guide for knowing what is an appropriate amount of searching (in my opinion).
I’ll answer this question with a few questions that you can ask yourself when you feel like you’re done enough research. Not all of these points will apply to every type of research assignment, of course, but they’re a good way to tell yourself “enough is enough”:
- Are you coming across the same information in multiple, credible sources (i.e. three)?
- Have you already found relevant information in different types of sources (i.e. books, journal articles, government publications, newspaper articles – whatever is appropriate for your subject area)?
- If you added a new angle or subtopic now, would it just complicate your argument rather than strengthening it?
- Are you starting to collect information that isn’t exactly on your topic?
- Are you running out of time to actually write/prepare your assignment?
- Do you have enough information to cover the main points of your topic well (or support your thesis, if applicable)?
If you find yourself answering “yes” to most of these questions (where applicable), it’s probably time to move on. I promise, you will never find all of the relevant information on your topic (unless you feel inspired to do your PhD on your current essay topic!). It’s extremely tempting to want to keep looking, to make sure you’ve done the “best” job. But giving into this temptation can result in having a huge pile of resources, little time to do anything with them, and a whole lot of stress. Efficient researching often comes down to trusting ourselves, which obviously takes practice. Hopefully the questions above will help a little in this process.
Make sure to look at the “Evaluation” section of this blog, as it further assists with the development of this skill. You can also consult Brescia’s Writing Instructor, who will help you with starting the writing process.