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Leslie Gilmour

How Safe & Reliable is the Internet?

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A few years ago a story about an elderly lady who allegedly trained her 65 cats to steal from her neighbours spread throughout social media.

And this is just one among many examples that baffle the internet users, some of whom don’t immediately realise that they’re dealing with fake news, invented with the purpose of entertainment (although sometimes there are other motives such as financial, political, or social).

And a little fun never hurt anybody, right?

As a matter of fact, this is a debatable question.

Similarly, a commercial stat saying that “80% of dentists recommend Colgate” and which the company was subsequently banned from using, was a manipulation – dentists recommended other brands as much as Colgate. According to surveys, Americans believe that two-thirds of news on social media is misinformation.

No wonder this is so when the phenomenon of creating and circulating fake news and doctored stats has brought about much confusion among the internet users as it’s sometimes really hard to figure out how reliable a source is and whether stats and research results are legit. This can be particularly complicated when you have a research paper to write.

Here’s how to make sure that your data is accurate and verified.

Run a Background Check on the Website

Before you decide to use a certain website for study materials and quote it as a source in your paper, you need to establish its credibility and trustworthiness. 

There are a couple of easy tricks that will help you make a conclusion:

  • Is it ridden with spelling and grammar mistakes? If the answer is yes, then it’s a red flag that the source in question is of dubious credibility.
  • Who’s the author of the publication? If you can’t find a name or contact details, you can as well ask yourself why the person has chosen to be so vague about that, and that’s not a good sign. By providing their credentials, authors show that they’re transparent, as well as that they stand behind their words.
  • Are there any references to the author elsewhere? If the person has authored other publications and if they’re cited on different relevant and trustworthy websites, then it’s likely that you can safely use their work for your research purposes. People who are experts in their field are usually cited and mentioned frequently in papers and texts of other scholars, meaning that they in a way vouch for them.
  • Is the author affiliated with a reputable organisation or academic institution? This is a good sign, because, MIT, for example, wouldn’t allow being affiliated with a charlatan or a questionable source.
  • Are the sources the author cited reliable and trustworthy? If the author corroborates his ideas by providing links to shady websites, skip that publication.

These are some of the first steps that you have to take if you’d like to use a certain website as a source.

What About Wikipedia?

Although you’ll hear that many people don’t exactly prefer Wikipedia as a source, the fact is that it’s one of the most comprehensive sources on the internet – the digital encyclopedia has more than 5.7 million articles in English.

While it’s true that registered members can provide and edit articles, which sometimes leads to incorrect and invalid information, the community very quickly reacts and such, usually intentional, misinformation is quickly corrected. However, certain articles, especially those concerning historical and political facts, tend to be biased.

But this source can be the first step in your research and provide you with a general overview of the

topic you’re dealing with as it can direct you towards different perspectives and useful sources which are listed below every article. A good rule of thumb is to check out Wikipedia articles but take certain things with a pinch of salt and explore them in more detail on other websites.

So, the main takeaway point would be to always double-check every source.

Trace Back the Information to the Primary Sources

You should always try to follow the trail of citations and identify the primary sources of the information you use.

As different pieces of information are being passed on, they are altered, corrupted, and misinterpreted, which leads to a certain kind of academic Rashomon effect. 

This means that the version of the information you find might differ significantly from the original, which is why you need to set the record straight.

We tend to rely on curated content and other people’s overviews and accounts of a particular research study or situation, but it’s best to look for the original and take the whole context into consideration, especially when we’re dealing with sensitive or frequently disputed matters.

Use Different Source Types

In an attempt to ensure that your paper is accurate and well-researched, you can easily make it dry and uninteresting.

That’s why it’s a good idea to go beyond these traditional sources and pep things up with newspaper articles, magazines, interviews, private archives, scholarly journals, as well as different audio and video recordings.

The only problem might be the fact that certain journals and scientific magazines are accessible only to U.S. audiences. This obstacle can be easily overcome by using a reliable VPN service which can override such location-based limitations and allow you to dive into a wealth of interesting information.

Tap into Google Scholar

If you want to browse scholarly literature, then Google’s freely accessible academic search engine can help you with that.

Google Scholar’s database boasts around 389 million records, including research studies, papers, abstracts, technical reports and countless other types of documents available in digital and physical formats.

Certain articles and publications are free while others have to be paid for in order to be accessed in full. This service uses Google’s algorithm to rank search results, meaning that it lists the most relevant results based on the author’s ranking, the number of citations, as well as the ranking of the publication that the article appears in.

So, if you want to play it safe, then Google Scholar is a must.

One would think that living in a global and highly digital village means that every information is easily accessible and verifiable, but it turns out that the Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds hoax is still a very likely scenario in this day and age. That’s why it’s important to know your sources well and use these tips to find reliable and legitimate information for academic purposes.

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