How to Use the Internet in a Scholarly Manner
The world wide web provides a great many people with access to information they otherwise would not have access to or would have to spend hours tracking down. The benefits of this for our culture and academia are evident. However, it is also important to consider the dangers of this. A good deal of information accessible on the web, including the majority of the free information, is often the viewpoint of a single person. As a professor, a major concern of mine is that many people see to believe the information on the web without evaluating it. Otherwise, if the person claims to have experience or has the write letters behind their name, they are viewed as an expert. This page is intended to be a guide on how to use the internet effectively and in a good academic manner. Let me begin by discussing concerns.
Nature of Web Content
Almost anyone can learn and afford to create a web site these days and very few types of content are regulated in any manner. While I am glad that the web is not regulated as it enhances our freedom of speech, it also puts more responsibility on the reader or the consumer of web content. You can find material to support almost any view you want to hold with content from the web, but this does not mean your position is any more valid. This is particularly important when using the information in an academic setting. See How to Determine if a Source is Scholarly for more information.
So who is responsible for this content? If it is a student using the material for an academic project, it is the student. If it is a professor recommending web sites for students to use, it is the professor. When I've added web sites to this site, I have generally reviewed the site fairly thoroughly or have had it recommended by a trusted colleague. Oftentimes both. However, there are some tricks to this. First, web content changes. I've found occasionally that web sites have changed from information quite appropriate for class to information that is not scholarly. This makes it important for professors to revisit sites occasionally. Second, an error I have made is that I've reviewed portions of a site and found them trustworthy and added them to my site. Later, often after a student comments about it, I find out that much of the content is not scholarly or appropriate material. In other words, you can't just review a portion of a site to determine it is a good source. A good review of a web site should take time.
Do all sources have to be academic? By no means, but there are a couple of concerns that should be kept in mind. First, some sites are not academic but try to present as if they were. These are the ones which are of greatest concern to me. I try never to list these sites. There are many sites that can be useful teaching tools that are not academic, but these don't try to present as what they are not. A common example of a site trying to present as academic would be one which presents a paper in a somewhat scholarly looking format, but it has never been subject to the peer review process and is not written by a person with training or expertise in this area. A second concern is that some sites are very misleading or more based in rhetoric than academics.
Be Wary of Pseudo-Scholars!
People often use titles to make them look as if they are more knowledgeable than they are. This is often with hopes of influencing others or it may be connected to issues of narcissism, low self-esteem, or insecurity. These people are not always easy to identify, especially if you are not looking for them.
The most common example of this is when people use various letters behind their name in order to make them look like an expert in the areas they are talking about. For example, I could be a good pseudo-scholar on quantum physics. I am interested in quantum physics and know some about the basic principles of it. However, I am not an expert in quantum physics and not even a quantum physics scholar. I still could easily create a web site and title it "All You Need to Know about Quantum Physics by Louis Hoffman, Ph.D. MAT, MA." Looks impressive doesn't it. But the letters behind my name are misleading in this setting. I have no degree related to Quantum Physics. Yet, the letters make me look as if I was an expert.
It's also easy to get some fancy letters behind your name these days. There are many different letters almost anyone could attain through various online and other programs. Often these programs may be unaccredited and not very sound. While I don't like the idea of subscribing to academic snobbery, at the same time I do have concerns about the quality of training at many of these institutions.
Titles can also be used to present as pseudo-scholars. There are many titles which can be obtained through online courses or even weekend training. However, these often don't mean much. Again, they are nice ways to make someone look like an expert when they are not.
One thing that I typically look at in reviewing a site is the domain name. I tend to trust ".edu" sites much more, especially if they connected to a university that I trust. However, I could also purchase a domain name that ends in ".edu" to make a site look better. For example, I could purchase the domain name "QuantumUniversity.edu." to build my Quantum Physics site. The ".edu" makes it appear academic or scholarly, but really is just misleading.
Responsible Internet Usage in Academia
There are several things you can do to try to insure that you are approaching the internet in an appropriate scholarly manner. Most of these are covered in the web page How to Determine if a Source is Scholarly; however, let me mention a few more.
How did you find the site? If it was referred to you by a professor or from an academic site, then there is a much better chance that it is a scholarly source. If you found it through a Yahoo! or Google search, it is less likely to be scholarly. An exception is that there are more search engines that are trying to help students make these determinations. For example, Google has developed a "Google Scholar" database that is supposed to only include scholarly sources. While this helps insure the source is scholarly, it is still good to double check.
Who links to the site? It is now rather easy to do a search which will tell you who is linking to a web site For example, if I were to go to google and type in "link:www.louis-hoffman-virtualclassroom.com" it would tell me all the sites that link to my site. My experience has been that generally this doesn't get all the links, but will get most. From what I've heard (as a non-computer scholar!) is that Alta Vista's search engine is the most reliable for tracing links backwards. If the sites which link to it are primarily scholarly, especially if it includes one or more university/college sites, then it is more likely to be a scholarly source.
Who Created the Web site and Why? This isn't always easy to determine, but a good question to ask when reviewing a site. If it seems the person is highly interested in convincing people of a particular perspective, be cautious. Also, you may ask the related question of "what does this person have to gain from this web site?" If it's for personal gain, again, be cautious.
Many web sites, even scholarly web sites, are intended to make money. Some of these sites I'm more suspicious of, others I'm more comfortable with. If the site costs money because it takes a lot of time and effort to maintain or because it is dealing with copyright information, then it probably costs money because it is scholarly. Ebsco is a good example of this. However, if it is connected to many ways to sell things which the web owner will profit from, then I'm more suspicious. A couple of exceptions.Many of my web sites are constructed in a way to try to break even. In this spirit, I have a connected with Amazon.com and my web host. If people purchase from these two places I receive a small amount of credit or money for my referral. The amount I receive from this is minimal and so far I haven't even broke even. If you see banner adds, then typically I'd be more suspicious as these are more often more lucrative.
A second exception relates to people promoting their own works. Many scholars are encouraged to create web sites for their books or professional works. This is often because they belief in their ideas and put a lot of work into writing the book. They want it to have an impact. Also, as academia is often not the most lucrative of careers, many use professional writing as a way to supplement their income.
Who Do They Link To & Why? This may point to some of the questions above. For example, do they profit from their links? Second, are their links scholarly? Just like you can learn a lot about a book (& web site) from its references, so can you learn a lot from a web site from its links.
Determining what is a scholarly source is going to become a much more important issue in academia as technology continues to be integrated in the learning environment. It's important that academia be proactive about preparing professors and students about how to use all this new information wisely.As this seems to be changing constantly, I'm sure this page will be regularly updated as I continue to learn more and receive feedback about this page.
While there are concerns about the large number of unscholarly sources being used in academia today, there is another side to this. There can be great benefits from teaching students to sharpen their critical thinking skills through learning how to determine if a source is scholarly. This benefit, if used well, may serve to balance out many of the dangers.