Understanding Online Sources

This online research tip helps with figuring out and citing web sites.

I’ve heard all different kinds of questions on the subject of academic sources, usually from people who are trying to cite them formally.

First come the most fundamental ones.  Why and when do we cite our sources?  (There are good guides and rules of thumb out there to help with these, including at the Memorial Writing Centre.)

Later come the most specific ones, about various formats, such as APA and MLA.  (There are many guides for these questions as well, including one from Memorial Libraries and a very popular one at Purdue University in Indiana, in the United States.)

This post is about some of the questions in between—questions that are not always directly asked or answered, but that really matter.  Without thinking through the answers, we can’t understand our sources fully, and we certainly can’t cite them properly.

Here are three examples of Labrador topics that someone might write about:

  • Nain artist Josephina Kalleo.  If we type her name into Google, the first hit is this page.
  • The extinct Labrador duck.  The first result for labrador duck is the Wikipedia page.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should always go for the first or second hit on a Google search, but at least it’s a place for us to start.

We’re going to want to know something about these pages, in order to understand the context of what we’re reading.  This will help us decide how to think about the content, whether we trust it, and so on.  It will also help us come citation time, if we do wind up choosing to cite these sources in particular.

Regardless of what citation format we decide to use (or have to use), we’re going to need to figure out some key information first.  In fact, we should do this long before we make decisions about whether or not we even want to cite the material.

What is the source called?

There are often two levels to this: one for the overall web site, and one for the article itself.  Sometimes there are even more.  To find this out, look first at the top of the page and the URL.  You might also want to click around a bit, to get a better understanding of the context.

  1. Our first example helps us out by having two titles in big letters at the top of the page.  Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador (website title) and “Josephina Kalleo” (article title).
  2. In the second example, the title at the top is “Labrador War Memorial.”  Look closer at the URL and the menu header, and you will also discover that this is actually part of the Them Days website.  Note that here we’re interested in the whole War Memorial section of the website, not just a single page.  The Google hit lands us on “Acknowledgements” first, and that is not likely the most relevant page for our project.  This is an example of three levels of titles: Them Days > Labrador War Memorial > Acknowledgements.
  3. “Labrador duck” and Wikipedia.  This one is pretty straightforward.

Who created the source?

This is where things can start to get tricky online, partly because websites are often produced collaboratively, and partly because the creator information is often not reported in an obvious or standard way.

  1. It’s good practice to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page in search of an author credit.  For example, other articles on this very same site list authors at the bottom.  Here, however, none is available.  Clicking around the site gives no additional information either.  So, who wrote the article?  All we can do is assume that it was the staff of Heritage NL who operate the website itself.  It’s also possible to click around and discover that the introduction to the artists section of the site was provided by the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador (AGNL), but we don’t know for sure if that applies to the individual articles as well.
  2. Here again, we have no single author, and the ”Project” page makes it clear that this was a team effort of some kind.  However, Michael Martin’s email is given in several places as the primary contact, so you might consider him to be the editor of the material.  Plus, the creator of the website itself is Them Days.  In this case, Them Days acts almost like a traditional publisher, not directly creating the content, but creating its container and making the content available to its audience.
  3. Our third example is a classic case of collaborative authorship.  This wiki page can be edited by anyone (including us).  So there is no particular creator to credit, besides in a general sense Wikipedia itself.  You can go into the editing history of the page if it’s especially relevant to track down the author of a specific word or phrase for some reason, but that’s rarely necessary or useful.

Note how often the web site title is actually the same as the name of the author or publisher!

When was the source created?

This is often the most difficult information to find, but it is also very important, especially when circumstances are changing or new sources are emerging.  Further, because websites often change or disappear, it’s always a good idea to note the date of access, at least for your own records (even though not all citation standards require it).  For one thing, if no creation date is given, then at least recording the access date provides an upper bound—since we know for sure that the page was created before we read it!

  1. A note at the bottom of the article says, “Updated: July 2013.”
  2. The bottom of the main “Memorial” page notes, “Last updated: 15 November 2008.”  This might prompt us to look for a more recent source, such as the current print issue of Them Days, which is entirely devoted to Labrador’s veterans.
  3. In a wiki page, the content is subject to constant change.  In this case, therefore, the date of the present content is actually the same as the date on which we access it.  So, in our case, that’s 12 May 2020.

Where can someone find the source?

One of the main points of citing a source is to allow people to verify it, should they so choose.  If they are to do that, then they have to know how to track the source down.  I’ve already provided this information in the form of the links above, but when we are working with pen and paper or planning to print out an assignment, we’ll need something more explicit.

  1. The easiest, most straightforward method here is simply to copy the URL from our browser: https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/arts/josephina-kalleo.php. Usually in print it makes sense to omit the first part (but we’d better double-check that the URL still works in our browser).  In this case, heritage.nf.ca/articles/arts/josephina-kalleo.php is fine.
  2. For the Labrador War Memorial, each different page gives a different URL, so it makes the most sense to provide the URL for main welcome page: https://www.themdays.com/memorial/index.html. Also, note that it’s possible to trim this quite a bit, since “index.html” can often be omitted.  As always, double-check first, but in this case, themdays.com/memorial is indeed enough.
  3. Again, the abbreviated URL suffices: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labrador_duck.

Note that a URL is not always best.  If you find a source nested inside a database, for example, then it may have a giant URL.  More importantly, that URL might change unexpectedly at any time, due to database maintenance processes and so on.  In these cases, the database may provide a better locator, such as a DOI or other number.  The bottom line is just to retain the information that lets somebody find the site itself, then find the page within the site.

That’s it!

If we can answer these four questions, then we can develop a better-informed impression of the source we’re using, and draw some preliminary conclusions about how comfortable we are with relying on it.  In fact, no matter how relevant or compelling a source might be, we shouldn’t really rely on any source unless we have satisfactory answers to all of the above questions. Moreover, when citation-time comes around, the answers to the questions above will provide us with the necessary raw information, no matter what academic standard we use.

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