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Finding and evaluating resources on the web


More and more, governments, scholars, corporations, non-profits, and others are making their publications freely accessible on the open web. So depending on your topic you may be able to do at least some of your academic research with a basic search engine, in addition to accessing scholarly resources through the Library's electronic journal and database subscriptions.

Because it's easy for anyone to publish anything online, it's more important than ever to know how to evaluate the reliability and credibility of what you read and view. 

And when a basic search can return millions of results, it's helpful to know some advanced search techniques to help you find the right resources -- and filter out what you don't need. 

Search techniques

Almost all search engine searches are keyword searches, and search engines will often search for synonyms or related terms at the same time. Use your initial search to learn additional terms you can use in future searches, on the web or in the Library's article databases

For more focussed searches, and to reduce the number of irrelevant results, try one of these techniques:

Phrase searching

To search for exact names, quotes, and other phrases, try placing quotation marks around your search terms. For example:

"fat tax"

This search will find Web resources in which the exact phrase "fat tax" appears.

Combined searching

You can also search for combinations of keywords and phrases. For example:

"fat tax" Canada

This search will find resources in which the phrase "fat tax" and the word Canada appear.

Other tips

  • For more, see Search tips for Google and Google Scholar.
  • Most web search tools offer Help and/or FAQ features that provide basic and advanced search tips. (Try searching for "search tips" or "advanced search tips" for the latest.)
  • Many tools also feature options to search the web for resources available in specific formats or genres (such as images, videos, news, maps, etc.). For more information on locating such materials, see the SFU Library's Publication Type Guides.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar enables you to search specifically for scholarly literature, including peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports. Many resources found in Google Scholar are available for free online or through SFU's paid subscriptions. Enter Google Scholar from the link above (or through SFU Library's Databases page) and access articles SFU subscribes to by clicking the link "Where can I get this?", after searching for articles.

For tips including searching by author or publication, restricting the article by date, and other techniques, see SFU Library's Search tips for Google and Google Scholar and Google's Advanced Scholar Tips

Evaluating sources

Once you've found a web resource related to your topic, evaluating its reliability is the critically important final step. Make sure to ask the basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? and Why?

Who: Authority

  • Who is the author (i.e. the individual or organization who created this resource)?
  • What kind of academic or professional credentials do they have?
  • Are they affiliated with any institutions or organizations?
  • Is the author a recognized expert in the area?

What: Content

  • Is the information provided suitable for your topic?
  • Does the information seem credible based on other sources that you've read?
  • What kind of facts and opinions are expressed?

Where: Scope

  • Who is the intended audience for this resource?
  • What does the URL indicate about the scope and/or purpose of this resource (e.g. .com for commercial resources, .ca for Canadian sites, .edu for educational sites in the U.S., .gov/ for government sites, etc.)?

When: Currency

  • How recently was this resource published or last updated?
  • How current are the sources that the author cites?
  • Are any of the links broken?

Why: Objectivity

  • Is the information consistent with other scholarly resources related to this topic?
  • Is there any evidence that this resource may be biased (for example, information found on a political party or private company website)?
  • Are the author's sources clearly cited (are there references or a bibliography)? Can they be easily verified?
  • Does the page contain advertising? If so, are the ads clearly separated from the content?
  • Where do the page's links take you?

Additional sources for evaluating credibility

Evaluating Internet Resources (Ryerson University Library and Archives)
Strategies for evaluating websites as well as journal articles and books.

How to spot fake news: Identifying propaganda, satire, and false information
Includes a shareable graphic and quizzes to test your skills. 

Further study

University of Washington instructors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West have created a credit course, Calling Bullshit, and have made their readings and lecture videos available online. In their words, "Our world is saturated with bull. Learn to detect and defuse it."