The first question you should ask yourself is, "Which medium it the best for me to use as a reference?" The most common answer in biology is printed materials. Books and journals have been peer-reviewed, which means that experts other than the author have reviewed the contents and agreed with the content of the publication. The world wide web (WWW) is blessed and cursed by the fact that anyone can "publish" materials and there is no need for peer-review; one only needs a web server. So, as scholars, we have to be careful when we read a web site to determine whether we think the contents are worthy of citation or not. In biology, you should lean towards trusting URLs (web addresses) that end in ".gov" (government site such as National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health) or ".edu" (educational institutions such as Davidson.edu) more [but not completely] than you should trust an URL that ends in ".com" (a commercial site that might have a profit motive for "publishing" certain information). These endings are used in the US internet, but there are equally creditable sites in other countries that will terminate with endings that represent the country such as ".ac.be" (an academic setting in Belgium) or "nus.sg" (National University of Singapore in Singapore).
The question of which WWW site to cite is becoming increasingly important as more information becomes available through the WWW. Is all of this information equally good? Which ones are more reliable? When you read a book or scholarly journal, the contents have usually been peer reviewed which means that other people who are familiar with that topic have evaluated its content. However, any schmoe can put false and misleading information on a WWW homepage and it will look just as good as a credible site.
So how do we evaluate a WWW site? First, you should read a book like Online! which is required of all Biology 111 students. It tells you how to find out who published the paper, when it was updated last, and how to properly cite web pages in the four most popular styles. But you need to think critically any time you read information and ask yourself, "Do I believe this? Are the data being presented in a fair and objective manner?"
This page is designed to help you learn how to evaluate a WWW page. You will be asked to go to a couple other web pages and then return to this page (called "EVALUATION PAGE" in the directions). Use the Back and Forward buttons at the top left corner of your browser to facilitate this movement.
Click Here, read the information, then return to EVALUATION PAGE. Pay special attention to the information concerning Japan and Israel.
The page you just read compared smokers prevalence and the rate of lung cancer. Did you notice any statistics that seemed surprising such as the prevalence of smokers in Japan and Israel vs. the rates of lung cancer in those countries?
What conclusion did the author WANT you to make based on these numbers?
The conclusion the author WANTS you to make is that there is no correlation between the rate of smoking and the rate of lung cancer. Do you have enough information to make that conclusion or is there some missing information?
Do you believe the validity of the numbers presented on this page? What source does the author cite? Use the author's hyperlink to verify those numbers and determine if they have been reported accurately or not.
What other factors might contribute to the rate of smoking? Do you think there might be some other important information that is not presented on the Smokers page that might be required before you could form any conclusions?
For example, do you know if the percentage
of smokers includes everyone who has ever tried a cigarette, or
does in only include people who smoke a pack a day?
Does the amount that a person smokes have any impact on the likelihood that he or she will develop lung cancer?
Are there any biological differences between people of Sweden and Japan, or Israel?
Do you think these three countries represent identical genetic content, or might there be differences in the genetic susceptibility to cancer?
If cigarette smoking leads to lung cancer, what information would you like to compare? What are the two populations (control and experimental) you would like to have more information on? Do you think there would be a difference in the rate of lung cancer for smokers vs. non-smokers within the same country (e.g. Japan)? Would that information be more meaningful that what was presented on the Smokers page? Why?
Return to the Smokers page and click on the hyperlink at the top left corner of the page that says "Back to main page" and then return to EVALUATION PAGE.
Is there any reason you might have good reason to doubt the author's objectivity? Why?
So what is the take-home message when reading web sites? Always keep two things in mind:
1) What is the source of the information? Does the URL end in .gov or .mil or .edu or .com or .org? What do these endings tell you about the source of the information? If the site is in another country, what organization is providing the information?
2) Has the author presented all of the information you need to make your own conclusions, or has some information been omitted? Did the author have an agenda and therefore presented only the information that pushes you in the direction he or she wanted you to go?
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