How to fact find accurately online


1st Jan 2015 Technology

How to fact find accurately online
Fact finding should be easy on the internet, but there is so much information out there, how can you tell what to believe? We have compiled these great tips to ensure you always get the correct information as quickly as possible.

Finding the facts online

Trusting Wikipedia

Say I just want to check a fact, such as the population of Hungary. Where's the best place to start?
No matter what topic you are looking for information about, one of the first search results you'll encounter will probably be from Wikipedia.  This is an online encyclopedia with millions of articles. It is available in more than 270 languages.
Wikipedia's articles are written by tens of thousands of volunteer contributors from all over the world – anyone who has access to the internet can write for the site or make changes to existing articles. The broad, collaborative nature of Wikipedia means that vast amounts of information can be found there. There are articles on almost any subject you can think of – from toupees to the Argentine constitution of 1826. All the articles contain hyperlinks (words, phrases or images that you click on to jump to another web page), making it easy to explore related subjects.

Anyone can write for Wikipedia? Then how can I be sure that the information is reliable?

When Wikipedia first started, its trustworthiness was often called into question. But today's Wikipedia is in fact remarkably reliable, and has been for some time. A 2005 study that compared Wikipedia with the best printed encyclopedias found a similar (very low) level of errors. The fact is that many of Wikipedia's contributors are experts in their own narrow field, and they take pride in getting things right. And there are editorial checks and balances in place.

What kind of checks are there?

The site is constantly monitored by Wikipedia's professional editors and by volunteers. Certain high-profile or contentious articles, such as those on international political figures or government organisations, are protected and cannot be edited by public users. In all articles, sources have to be cited – and many of these sources can be reached directly via a hyperlink.

So I can trust the information?

Usually yes, though if you want to use a fact that you have found on Wikipedia, it's a good idea to check it elsewhere – but that goes for any written information, online or not. You'll find a list of sources at the end of articles, which is useful for cross-referencing what you have read.
It is always a good idea to go to the first-hand source if you want to check a fact – it is all too easy for someone to manipulate the information or to get it slightly wrong. Of course, you will need to evaluate the first-hand source as well.

Check the sources

Usually Wikipedia is a good place to start if you want to learn more about something. It will give you a concise overview and will also contain references as to the source of information. These sources are located at the end of the article and  are generally links pointing to places outside of Wikipedia. Following these links will give you more in depth insight into your particular feild of interest and can open doors in terms of reading books or even discovering groups of people who share your interest. Always be dubious of Wikipedia articles with very few sources and references. 

How do I evaluate a website?

Here's a good test: copy a short chunk of the text, one that contains a distinctive turn of phrase that is not a quotation, and paste it into a search engine.
If the results turn up lots of sites using precisely the same text, this implies that the website obtained its information from some other source – possibly Wikipedia. The information may not be wrong – but if it has been copied from elsewhere then it has probably not been checked by the person who created the site.
You can usually conclude that the writer does not know enough about the subject to generate his or her own material.

Here are some other important things to consider when assessing information from a website:

  1. If the cut-and-paste test suggests that the website text is original, take a closer look at the words. Is the writing grammatically correct? Are there obvious spelling mistakes? Does the information seem knowledgeable, even-handed and well organised, or patchy, one-sided and slapdash? If the writing is bad in any way, or if the writer seems to have an axe to grind, then the facts may well be dubious, too. 
  2. Is the owner of the website identified? There should be a 'Contact us' or 'About us' page that contains the name and physical address (rather than simply the email address) of the organisation or person behind it. 
  3. Who is the author of the information? Is it someone who has professional credentials or – otherwise – does he or she have relevant experience? You need to know the author's perspective in order to assess his or her reliability. Check the name of the person or institution (however official it may sound) by googling it. If it is trustworthy, you would expect to find references to work by that author having appeared in reputable publications elsewhere. You would also expect the institution to be cited as an authority in places other than its own site, or linked sites. 
  4. Does the author offer evidence for his or her views? Are these legitimate scientific studies that you can verify, for example, or are they simply personal stories, which may not be relevant?
For more on seeing through inaccurate facts online, you can read Seeing Through Internet Hoaxes (News Literacy), which is available on Amazon.
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