Evaluating Online Information

With the increasing availability of websites that focus on global warming, the complexity of scientific issues, and the presence of climate change skeptics disputing the consensus of the scientific community, a critical issue for internet users searching for reliable information is the evaluation of online resources. Accuracy and objectivity are critical to sound information. Graduate programs in library and information science routinely incorporate website evaluation and analysis as components of their curricula. Additionally, public and academic libraries post evaluation criteria on their own websites and teach patrons how to assess online information through individual user instruction or group orientation sessions. Johns Hopkins University, for example, offers not only website evaluation criteria, but an introduction to information counterfeits, including: propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation, on its library's website.

According to this overview, propaganda is frequently misused because of its pejorative historic context. Propaganda is often thought of as information with no basis in truth, when, in actuality, it is the representation of the facts in a manner to solicit a specific response that defines propaganda as such. Misinformation, on the other hand, is not based in facts. Misinformation is not an intentional effort to mislead, but is simply incorrect information passed from one person to the next. Urban legends, which are untrue tales, comprise much of the misinformation online. Disinformation is the intentional propagation of false information, often with the purpose of influencing the media and the public to gain support for a political or policymaking position. The internet may be fertile ground for disinformation, but it is most likely the propaganda found online that scientists and scholars have attempted to debunk.

The number of factors recommended for analyzing a website can be as few as five or more than 20. Generally, however, criteria can be reduced to 10 categories: the publisher, author, currency, audience, perspective, content, quality, style, organization, and stability. The publisher of the website is critical, particularly if the site does not credit authors for their content. The publishing body should be recognizable and reputable.

Online searches for environmental information increase alongside greater media coverage about environmental issues.

There should be a link on each page of the site back to the home page and a link to email the webmaster. The authors' credentials are also central in determining whether or not a site should be used as a reliable, authoritative source. There should be information about the authors or links to other documents about and by the authors. The perspective of the site should represent an objective, balanced presentation of information. If there is an intended bias, then it should be clearly stated on the site. Government sites reflect the positions and policies of government leaders, just as industry sites represent the positions of corporate interests, although the perspectives of each may not be clearly defined. The user must sift through information to determine bias on these sites, as well as those representing other public and special interests.

The currency of the site refers to the frequency of updates. Dates of revision to the site as a whole and to the site's individual web pages should be posted.

Frequent updates are important if the site provides time-sensitive information. If a page or site has not been revised for some time, then it is possible that it is an orphaned page, or a site that has been superseded. The audience refers to the primary users of the site and the target audience. The intended users should be readily apparent on the site.

The stability of the site and its overall quality, including obvious faults, known errors, or inconsistencies, also play a central role in determining whether or not the site is credible. Finally, the site should be well organized, user-friendly, and easy to navigate. These factors influence the decisions by users on whether or not to return to sites. Sites with valuable reliable information are not useful if the users cannot find what they need.


There is a profusion of websites about climate change and global warming. Even with evaluation criteria, choosing among them can be difficult for internet users. There are a number of portal sites that provide links to information on a wide range of topics, including environmental science. These sites link to other sites that have been reviewed by information professionals and subject specialists.

For example, Intute, created by a network of universities and partners in the United Kingdom, contains more than 300 pages with information about global warming. Multiple pages may be found on the same site, so the number of websites is actually lower. Bulletin Board for Libraries (BUBL), prepared by and maintained at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland, links to nine individual websites about global warming, including those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Public Broadcasting Service. BUBL links to 30 sites about climate change, but there is some duplication of these sites and the sites about global warming.

The Internet Public Library, founded by the University of Michigan School of Information, and now maintained by the College of Information Science and Technology at Drexel University, with support from the College of Information at Florida State University, includes approximately 200 entries about global warming and 133 about climate change, with some repetition among the sites. The Librarians' Internet Index, a publicly-funded, librarian-maintained website with more than 20,000 entries, includes more than 70 sites about global warming and 70 about climate change, but includes duplication of sites.

Each year, the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) publishes a list of Best Free Reference Websites. RUSA is a division of The American Library Association, the oldest library association in the world, and the largest, with more than 65,000 members. RUSA's combined index includes Earth-trends: the Environmental Information Portal by the World Resources Institute (2004); GrayLit Network: A Science Portal of Technical Reports by the United States' Department of Energy's Office of Scientific and Technical Information (2005); the Internet Public Library (1999); Librarians Index to the Internet (2000); U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2003); National Weather Service of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2006); The New York Times on the Web (2003); and Science Daily Magazine (2004).

In the late 1990s, the environmental resources librarian at Harvard College Library identified a number of websites representing campus initiatives online, many of which are still viable sites today. Among those listed were the National Wildlife Federation, Second Nature, and the Institute for Sustainable Development. Stanford University's recommended internet resources also include the National Wildlife Federation, in addition to EcoNet, National Institute of Environmental Health Services, and Earth Trends.

The State University of New York at Buffalo has a comprehensive list of recommended sites about global warming that encompass domestic policy issues, international policy issues, New York State, data relevant to specific sites, materials for teachers and students, and guides to additional information. The list is thoroughly annotated and included among its recommendations are: Community Planning and Development: Environment, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Office of Community Viability; Congressional Research Service Reports, National Council for Science and the Environment; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which includes links to 250 documents about climate change, representing a broad range of local, national, and international websites; the National Library of the Environment, National Council for Science and the Environment; Environ ment: United Nations (UN) System Pathfinder, UN Dag Hammarskjold Library; the World Bank, and the World Resources Institute.

The Petroleum and Energy Resources Division of the Special Library Association (SLA) published its own list of recommended online resources in August 2007. Al Gore was a keynote speaker at the SLA's annual conference. Suggested publications could be found at websites by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; The Climate Institute, based in Washington, D.C.; RealClimate; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the ResourceShelf, a site that includes librarians and researchers among its contributors; and the National Academies Press. Websites recommended by other sources, including members of the State & Local Climate Change Program, are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Teachers Association, the Climate Action Network, the Climate Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Environmental Trust, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Pew Center of Global Climate Change. A number of factors, technological and human-driven, determine whether or not internet traffic is successfully directed to any of these recommended resources. The Western Fuels Association website has been cited as representing aggressive interests to downplay the impact of global warming and climate change.

sEE ALsO: Media, Books and Journals; Media, TV; Technology.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. Bulletin Board for Libraries (BUBL) Information Service, www.bubl.ac.uk (cited September 2007); Ann Copin, "Global Warming: An Example of How the Internet Has Changed Resource Access," Petroleum & Energy Resources Division Bulletin (v.28/3, 2007); Ross Gelbspan, "Snowed," Mother Jones (v.30/3, 2005); "Global Warming: A Self-Inflicted, Very Serious Problem, According To More Than Half The World's On-Line Population," www.acnielsen.com (cited September 2007); "Global Warming's Next Big Hurdle," www.forbes.com (cited September 2007); Steve Johnson, "New Debate Format is Unconventional but Lively," Chicago Tribune (July 23, 2007); Librarians Internet Index, www.lii.org (cited September 2007); George Marshall and Oliver Tickell, "More

Hot Air on the BBC," Ecologist (v.34/5, 2004); Jon Palfre-man, "A Tale of Two Fears: Exploring Media Depictions of Nuclear Power and Global Warming," Review of Policy Research (v.23/1, 2006); T.M. Parris, "A Plethora of Campus Environmental Initiatives on the Net," Environment (v.40/7, 1998); RealClimate, www.realclimate.org (cited September 2007); "Your Climate Change Library," Alternatives Journal (v.32/4-5, 2006); "Welcome Climate Bloggers," Nature (v.432/7020, 2004); Daisy Whitney, "Break the Addicition," Television Week (v.26/24, 2007).

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