Vol. 79, No. 11, November
Assessing Information on the Internet
How do you know what's behind that Web site? Healthy skepticism and
critical evaluation techniques are basic lawyering traits that should be
used when assessing the credibility of Internet-based information.
by Mary J. Koshollek
"The Internet is just a world passing around notes in a classroom." -
Mary J. Koshollek,
Marquette 1993, is director of information and records services at
Godfrey & Kahn S.C., Milwaukee. She has taught Advanced Legal
Research as an adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School and
is a frequent lecturer and author on legal research for professional
associations. She serves on the board of the Private Law Libraries,
Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law
Jon Stewart's view of the Internet is not so far from the truth when
you consider that anyone in the world can post just about anything and
have it spread around the Web. Spurious information is indeed a severe
problem as the Web grows, and any Web searcher is advised to proceed
with caution. This article provides guidance as you search and work to
evaluate the information that you are gathering. Healthy skepticism and
critical evaluation techniques are basic lawyering traits and should be
applied to working with Internet-based information.
Examples of the Problem and the Courts' Caution
Excellent search engines like Google, and the Internet itself, have
made it easy to look something up online rather than in a book. Simple
search interfaces, worldwide coverage, and speedy results, usually with
some kind of an answer at the top of result lists, all make
Internet-based research a deceptively attractive way to harvest
information in a busy world. However, a list of Web sites and their
content should not be taken as reliable or current without further
A classic and often-cited example of the fallibility of information
on the Web concerns the World Trade Organization (WTO). The official
site for the WTO is at www.wto.org,
and what purports to be the WTO's page is at www.gatt.org. When one reviews articles
contained on the latter, it becomes apparent that, although appearing
very similar to the official site, it is in fact counterfeit, especially
when it notes the scheduled disbanding of the organization.
Courts also are recommending cautious usage and critical evaluation,
although some courts themselves use the Internet for background
research, particularly in cases involving disputed trademarks.1 Note this excerpt from a Texas case in which U.S.
District Judge Samuel B. Kent of the Southern District of Texas ruled
against a motion by a seaman who was injured and wanted to use Web-found
evidence to prove a vessel's ownership. Judge Kent wanted hard copy
documentation on paper, referring to the Internet as "voodoo
information." "While some look to the Internet as an innovative vehicle
for communication, the Court continues to warily and wearily view it
largely as one large catalyst for rumor, innuendo and misinformation,"
wrote the judge.2
Interestingly, even well-respected sites may be viewed skeptically,
as demonstrated by this line from a Pennsylvania case: "An Internet site
determining distances [MapQuest™] does not have the same inherent
accuracy as do professionally accepted medical dictionaries, or
encyclopedias, or other matters of common knowledge within the
Despite this judicial mistrust, credible information is available on
the Web to lawyers, and the Wisconsin judiciary has provided commentary
on its use.4 Arming yourself with the
following techniques to review a page, and then assessing the
trustworthiness of the information presented there, can produce valuable
First Look at the URL
To Learn More
on Evaluating Internet Resources.
- LaJean Humphries, How to Evaluate a
Website (includes many links to sites on the topic).
- LaJean Humphries, How to Evaluate a Website, in
Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet 165 (Anne P. Mintz and
Steve Forbes, eds. 2002).
- Virtual Chase Quality Checklist: Evaluating the
Quality of Information on the Internet.
- Genie Tyburski, research librarian at Ballard Spahr Andrews &
Ingersoll LLP, edits The Virtual Chase, A
Research Site for Legal Professionals, (visit her section on
Evaluating the Quality of Information on the Internet for checklists,
interactive tutorial, guidelines, Webliography, and more).
Check information from a domain name registry site to determine the
owner of the URL. Sites like WHOIS, and Central Ops Tools, will help reveal
who is the registered owner. Even with university and library sites,
there are pages that the institution does not oversee, so be sure to do
a complete job of critical evaluation and not just rely on the domain
name. When you have been linked to a file deep within a site, go up a
few levels and look at the main page. The entire Web address also can
provide clues, according to the "Virtual
Chase," a Web site devoted to researching the Internet that is
edited by Genie Tyburski of Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll LLP.
The site has an excellent checklist of how to decipher a URL.5 The Virtual Chase also notes that codings such as
a tilde (~) in the page's address usually indicate a personal home page,
which isn't necessarily bad, but you should carefully check out the
Look Around the Page
1) Determine who wrote the page. As you review the
page, look for phrases and words such as "about us," "history," or
"philosophy." Check for anything that speaks to the sponsor's background
or biography. Look for other publications by the author or publisher by
doing a search on Amazon.com or in library catalogs.
2) Check the date if one is available. Webmasters
usually will indicate a date on which the page was last updated. This is
especially important with statistical materials. A date older than a few
months may indicate that a page has simply been abandoned. Also be aware
that scripting on a page may automatically show a current date, although
the content may not have been changed on that date.
3) Hints to find the date if one is not available.
Check associated materials like press releases and note if they are
current or appear out of date. Are there upcoming events with dates in
the future? If the internal clues within the site suggest that a page
has not been updated recently, be sure to verify with a second source
any information you obtain from the site. Lack of permanency of
materials is a big concern, and something you find today may not be
available in the future. Is it permanent information or something that
will change in a week or a month or a year? Also, has the content
migrated from one part of the site to another, making it impossible to
cite? Note the date that you accessed the site and the URL on that date.
Searches on Google may bring up what a page looked like when the search
engine last indexed it, which may be different from when you accessed
4) Look for contact information. If the only
available identification of a sponsoring entity is something enigmatic
or nondescript, such as "Society for Policy and Developmental Affairs,"
be suspicious of the page's reliability. If the page is sponsored by a
reputable person or organization, the page should include some other way
to verify the sponsor's reputation, such as an email or postal address
or a listing in an association directory.
Evaluation of Content
1) Are sources documented? As in the academic world,
look for documentation or statements about the sources relied on. Are
there notes or references? Was the information exactly repeated, or was
it paraphrased in some way or not used in full? Get information from the
primary source when possible, and try to verify information with two or
more reputable sources that report the same information.
2) Are there permissions? Note if there is respect
for copyright or if permissions are granted. If a copyright symbol is
presented, who holds the copyright? Check the registrations at the Copyright office.
3) What do others say? There are techniques to show
the traffic on a page, and an article by "Super Searcher" Mary Ellen
Bates provides some assistance.6 She notes
that Google and other search engines will show what sites connect to
another site by using a specific search syntax. Use the "link:" syntax
to search for pages that link to the page. (The format in Google is
link:www.XXXX.com; the format in Yahoo and MSN is
link:http://www.XXXX.com.) If you don't find another reputable site
linking to the site you are evaluating, it may not be well-respected by
experts in that field. Be aware that if this is a very new Web site, it
may not have established a reputation. It also is a good idea to search
on the author's name. Some well-known directories on the Web may link to
the page as a reputable source. The Librarian's Internet Index, the WWW Virtual Library, and the Scout Report from the University of
Wisconsin, are great places to check.
4) Is there obvious bias? Does the source provide a
balanced viewpoint? Or is its purpose to persuade or influence your
thinking? Many well developed pages offer links to other pages on the
same topic to invite comparison with the information presented. Pages
that include links to opposing viewpoints are more likely to be unbiased
than pages that offer only one opinion.
5) What is the intent of the page? Was the site
created for a stated reason? Is it possibly a hoax like the WTO example
above or a satire? Check for outrageous humor and exaggerated text or
photographs. Why is this information being posted - as information, as a
public service, as a news source, as a research tool for academics, as a
personal rant, or as a way to gain attention?
6) Is the information on the page primary or
secondary? Is the information a report of facts, such as a
wildlife biologist's article counting cases of chronic wasting disease
(CWD) in the midwest in 2000, thus making it primary information, or is
it an Internet newsgroup discussion about CWD, which makes it secondary
information? Information is less reliable the further away it is from
7) Is the information provided on the page from official or
nonofficial resources? Although government Web sites should be
consulted early for statutes and administrative materials, be sure to
check whether the entity considers the Web-based wording to be
"official." This is especially true of Wisconsin materials from the
Revisor of Statutes bureau.7 Are other hints
presented on the authority of the information, similar to the authority
provided by a recognized publisher?
8) What is the scope of coverage? Is this Web site
devoted to a specific jurisdiction, timeframe, or geographic region?
Does it have a scope statement that covers what is included or excluded?
Is this a site that requires a password or a subscription to access the
9) Can you verify the information presented? Try to
discover how information in a Web site was gathered and whether there is
an explanation of the research method(s) used to gather and interpret
that data. Note also whether the research methods outlined are
appropriate to the topic and allow the research to be duplicated for
purposes of verification. Are the sources the site relies on listed in a
bibliography or are there links to the materials themselves? The site
also should note individuals and sources that provided nonpublished data
used in preparing the materials. Be careful if information is taken
verbatim from the first source or if both sites have relied on content
from the same source that is not in itself reliable or accurate.
Finally, remember that even though a page might not meet rigorous
standards as a citable source, it may help you generate good ideas or
point to other usable sources. Also, be sure not to stop your
investigation at the first page you find - look around and make
comparisons so that you can have several points of reference. And don't
forget that books and hard copy reference materials are still valuable
reference tools and sometimes the only way to get at certain types of