INFOBYTES: From the Internet to Informatics
THINK YOU CAN TRUST everything you read online? Think again. Anyone can put anything online, and no standards exist to guarantee that the content is accurate.
So how do you know whether the information you see is reliable? Use these five challenges to make sure you're on the right track.
Challenge #1: Accuracy. Is the information accurate? Is the source clearly stated? Do typos or odd breaks in the copy make you wonder how carefully the content was reviewed before it was posted? If the content already appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Nursing2005, AJN, or JAMA, it was approved by experts in their field before it was published. Copy posted directly online may or may not undergo an established review process.
Challenge #2: Authority. Whose Web site is it? Be cautious about content from personal pages; you don't know who the author is on many dot-com sites. (In contrast, with sites whose address ends with .edu, .org, or .gov, you know who's offering the information.) If an author is identified, what credentials are offered to establish credibility, and are they trustworthy? Where does he or she work? Is contact information provided so you can reach the author or publisher?
Challenge #3: Objectivity. Is the information objective or biased? Does the author have a vested interest in the content; for example, does she work for the company sponsoring a commercial site or is she promoting a product?
Challenge #4: Currency. Is the information up-to-date? When was it first posted and how recently was it updated? Can you tell what the update involved? To gauge currency, compare the information with that available through other sources and check out hyperlinks. (Broken ones, where you get a message such as “Page no longer available,” aren't an encouraging sight.)
Challenge #5: Coverage. What topics are covered and how complete is the coverage? Look for some depth as well as unique copy. Do hyperlinks connect to other reliable sites? Is the information presented well, with a balance of text and graphics? Do the graphics teach you something or are they just decorative (or worse, distracting)? If the site requires you to have special software, such as Adobe Acrobat or RealPlayer, what happens if you don't have it? Do you miss crucial content?
Tip: Check out the Medical Library Association's list of useful medical sites at http://www.mlanet.org/resources/medspeak/topten.html.
Jane Benner is executive managing editor of Nursing2005.