There is an enormous difference in the quality of the resources available through the library’s e-resources, on the one hand and the Internet in general, on the other. There is much on the general Internet that is inaccurate or written by non-specialists. Remember—only quote qualified experts in the subject you are studying.
Things to consider when evaluating web sources:
1. What are you looking for?
What is your purpose in doing this online research? Are you trying to find facts, opinions, statistics, lists of resources, links to primary documents, or something else? What kind of website or source would best suit your goal in this particular case?
2. What kind of website are you looking at?
Is the website run by a recognizable institution such as a school, organization or religious group? (Common URL endings include “.org” for “organization” or “.edu” for educational institutions.) How might this affiliation affect the material? Does its institutional connection give it credibility as a source, or signal to you that it may display certain biases?
3. Who is responsible for this website?
Who wrote this website, and what are their credentials? Are they qualified to write on this topic? Are they clear about who they are and what their intentions are in producing this content? Have they listed sources, or are they giving you their individual opinion without backing up their claims?
4. How objective is the material?
Is the material on the website relatively free from bias, or does it show (or conceal) a partisan point of view? Although having a point of view may not be a bad thing, resources that are too heavily biased towards one way of looking at things may not fairly represent opposing views and/or stretch the facts to make their case.
5. Is the style appropriate for graduate-level research?
Is the material or data on the website written/arranged in a scholarly, professional manner or is it intended for other uses? Is it really the best resource available to you on the topic?
6. Is the material on the website up-to-date?
When was the website last updated? Can it be trusted to provide accurate, current information?
7. Does this website contain errors?
Is it full of spelling and grammatical mistakes and factual inaccuracies? Has it reproduced content from another website without permission? Here again it is important to consider whether the information might be available in a more scholarly format somewhere else (such as a book or encyclopedia!).
8. Does this resource simply reinforce my own perspective?
Am I limiting myself to sites which reiterate what I already know, or am I genuinely engaging with new material that may broaden my perspective?
Wikipedia is a popular "open source" encyclopedia that can be added to and modified by any web user who meets its participation criteria. This means it contains a vast number of articles on a range of different topics, many of which are informative and written by people who are qualified to do so. However, there is no way to be sure if what you are reading has been written by an expert, someone with limited knowledge of the subject or a contributor with a particular agenda or bias. As such, it is generally not an appropriate source for an academic essay and should not be cited as a source in footnotes or bibliographies.
With that in mind, Wikipedia is still a helpful resource for exploring topics at a preliminary level, and may point you to other online resources with better credentials. Just keep in mind your criteria for evaluating information by asking yourself questions like: is this information biased? inaccurate? incomplete? written by someone with little knowledge of the topic? out of date? objective? These will help you sift through information that may not be helpful and keep you on track to meeting your research goals.