The Problem

The Internet offers near-instant access to a variety of information that you might find helpful in your research. Yet because anybody can post information online, and because most on-line information does not have to pass any standards of peer review (unlike conventional published resources), there is a very real risk that on-line resources can lead you astray. For example, my research on territorial claims has led me to web sites that claim to describe the history and relative merits of two countries' competing claims to the same piece of territory --but that are actually nothing but thinly disguised propaganda pieces attempting to support the writer's country. I have had far too many students unquestioningly use such web sites as sources in research papers, assuming that all of the "facts" and opinions presented are accurate and do not need to be questioned or investigated further.

Of course, it is always possible to mis-use traditional library sources as well as online sources. For some reason, though, my students have had a much worse problem in this respect with Internet sources. This may be because Internet sources are seen as possessing more credibility than traditional sources, or it may be that the students who have had trouble with this in the past are generally students who have waited until the last minute to do their research and thus haven't taken the time to evaluate their Internet sources (while most students who research in the library have generally started early enough that this hasn't been a problem for them). Whatever the reason, though, this has been a very serious problem for students in my courses using online sources in their papers.

Guidelines for Online Sources in My Courses

A very simple solution to this problem would simply be to forbid the use of Internet resources in college-level research papers. This would definitely end the problem, because you can't misuse a resource that you aren't allowed to use in the first place. Yet in many cases, the Internet does have valuable resources for academic papers; the remainder of my web site is full of links to potentially valuable Internet research resources. In particular, current or recent events are likely to be covered in a much more timely fashion by Internet newspapers or by the web sites of countries or organizations involved with a certain ongoing problem than is possible with books or journals in the library; there is simply too long a lead time in the publication process for us to expect the library to have information on events in the past few months.

Requesting Permission

As a result, I have decided to allow the use of Internet resources in my classes with the following provision. Any student wishing to use an Internet resource must obtain my written permission to use the source. This will involve the following:

Note that my permission is not needed for the use of online sources that are simply easier ways to access traditional printed sources. For example, academic journal articles accessed through JSTOR do not need my approval, because the same journal articles could have been found in the printed copies of the journals. Similarly, news stories accessed through the news source's web site (such as the New York Times, Washington Post, or BBC World Service) or through news aggregators (like Lexis-Nexis) do not need my permission.

Evaluating Approved Sources

Assuming that I have granted permission to use the source in question., it must be cited fully in the bibliography or references section of the research paper in question, and this citation must be accompanied by a paragraph evaluating the source. This means including all of the following:

Failure to evaluate Internet sources in this way will lead to the assessment of penalties against the assignment's grade.

The following links offer advice to consider when evaluating resources found on the Internet -- and might be able to help you avoid making embarrassing mistakes by trusting unreliable information sources.
Last updated: 15 January 2018
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