Issues of information quality are important whether information comes from a book, the Internet, television news or your next-door neighbor. We instinctively make quality judgements about information every day. Will it really rain if the news says it will? Should we buy stock in a company because our neighbor insists that it's on the rise? Can we write a reliable report based on statistics gleaned from an unheard of source on the Internet?
We are experiencing an information explosion. On top of traditional formats, the Internet has prompted a groundswell of new electronic "publishing". In this environment it is important to establish criteria for filtering information. The most important criterion is quality.
This paper addresses issues of information quality on the Internet. In defining Internet information quality, it is first necessary to identify the features of Internet publishing that distinguish it from traditional publishing. The next factor affecting quality is bias, which is defined below in three parts. Bias, publishing and other, more elusive concepts contribute to the list of five Internet information quality indicators. These quality indicators should be carefully studied and applied to each and every Internet resource encountered in your academic and professional careers.
Many features distinguish publishing on the Internet from traditional paper-based publishing (i.e. books and journals). The seven features described below should be interpreted as generalizations. there are exceptions and counter-arguments to each point.
No Profit Motive
From the start the Internet was a place for the curious and the innovative to share their professional work with others. Because there is no charge for posting information to the Internet, there seemed to be no reason to charge information users for access. The spirit of cooperation and community dominated early Internet transactions and set the non-profit tone.
Today, commercial interests are using more Internet bandwidth than ever before. Much of the commercially backed information was created with the sole intention of generating dollars for the company. Despite this trend, the Internet remains a bastion for non-commercial, non-profit interests.
Traditional publishing has long been a for-profit venture. The high cost of typesetting, materials, production and distribution of printed information keeps this process out of the hands of individuals. Onlya sizeable business with equipment, connections and money can spread printed information across the globe.
The absence of the profit motive on the Internet allows less marketable information to be published that might otherwise have not sold enough to pay back the production costs.
No Review Board
Any person with the right hardware, software and connectivity has the capacity to make their information available through the Internet. There is no review board. In other words, no one need have reviewed the quality of the information or verified its validity before it appeared on your screen.
Alternatively, most publishing companies and almost all scholarly journals have a panel of experts who read and comment on information submitted for publication. Reviewers and editors make the decision that this information is worthy of being published by their organization. This screening process eliminates questionable information from the publishers' products. Some publishers have reputations as extremists or producers of dubious works. Purchasers of these works see the publisher's stamp and incorporate their knowledge of the publisher's habits into their quality assessment of the work itself.
On the Internet, there is often no intermediary between information receiver and producer. The receiver is left to make her/his own judgement about the information on the screen. This is a great advance in the eyes of those who value freedom of information. For those who seek high reliability in information quality, this system leaves something to be desired.
Beyond the cost of purchasing computer hardware, software and connectivity (often provided by an person's school or workplace) the greatest price one pays for publishing on the Internet is time. The cost is significantly lower than the cost of printing and distributing a paper product.
The initial investment for an Internet publisher is relatively low. Within an hour or two the innovative and well-equipped computer-user can have her/his product up for the world to see. If something goes wrong, it takes even less time to remove that product from the Net.
It is possible to remain fairly anonymous on the Internet. An information provider need not identify her/himself, so the risk of ruining one's name or reputation is low.
Instant and Wide Distribution
The Internet reaches hundreds of thousands of people in more than eighty countries. An information resource accessible through the Internet is instantly accessible to all Internet users across the globe.
On the Internet, only a single copy of a document needs to be created. Instead of passing this copy around, the creator calls attention to its location and allows users to approach that document when and as often as they wish.
Books and journals are limited in their distribution by the number of copies made. A certain number of books are printed, then those books are mailed to specific locations to be sold or given away.
The instant and wide distribution of information on the Internet makes it easier for publishers to get their work out into the world. At the same time, it eliminates the selectivity of the traditional information dissemination process. Pornographic photographs and discussions on the Internet are accessed just as easily by minors as by adults; there is no gatekeeper checking ID's as there may be in bookstores.
Easy to Update
Information on the Internet need not be static. The Internet publisher holds the "master copy" and can change that copy in a few keystrokes. Changes take effect immediately.
Printed materials, on the other hand, cannot be changed once print is set to paper. Updates may be accomplished through errata, added volumes or new additions, but the awkward distribution system makes timely and complete updating difficult.
The Internet provides the possibility of easy updating of information. We can only hope that information providers take advantage of this possibility and maintain accurate and timely resources.
Guaranteeing the authenticity and integrity of information on the Internet is a concern. Though files on computer systems are protected, a file may be retrieved, modified, and re-posted on another computer system without a declaration of the modification or the modifier! Too, the rapid changes in hardware configurations and system priorities from computer site to computer site, as the Internet expands, can mean the overnight disappearance of services and data, making verification
No profit motive, no review board, low cost, low risk, instant and wide distribution, easy to update, concern about authenticity - these are the characteristics that make Internet publishing unique. The quality of Internet information is profoundly affected by these features, as well as by the various breeds of bias.
Bias is an inclination that interferes with impartial judgement; in other words, prejudice. Every person transmits and receives information through a filter of their own bias. Often these biases are quite subtle. Other times they are glaringly obvious.
Before fully investing in any information the following three types of bias should be considered: period, institutional and personal.
When was this information created? During what historical, cultural, political or economic climate? What were the prevailing attitudes at that time? The pervasive thoughts and attitudes certainly influence the content of information published during any given period.
Example: Research published in the United States in the 1800s concluded that women's physical constitution had such an influence on their capacity to reason that they should not be granted the right to vote.
Who funded or otherwise supported the creation of this information? Does this institution have a reputation or a consistent slant toward the issues represented by the information? An institution's financial or ethical interests might have a significant influence on the information in question.
Example: R.J. Reynolds laboratories ran a study which concluded that nicotine is not addictive.
When an individual is responsible for a published work, it is useful to ask some questions about that individual. Who are they affiliated with? What else have they published? What are their views? This is the most direct and often most obvious type of bias. Even a person with the most honest intentions may fall victim to personal bias.
Example: Published books and articles deny the existence of the Holocaust of World War II. It may be wise to examine the background of the author(s) of these works before accepting the content as valid.
Understanding the properties that distinguish Internet publishing from traditional publishing, and keeping the three major types of bias in mind, we may now explore indicators of Internet information quality.
The following five questions should be asked about every Internet information resource you use. The answers should give you some idea of the quality of the resource.
Responsibility: Who Did It?
Every resource should have a clear statement of responsibility. Who created it? What are the creator's credentials and affiliations? Without this information, resources on the Internet are impossible to verify or follow up on. An email address should be provided so that the creator may be contacted with comments and questions.
Example from the Central University, Chung-Li gopher:
Acknoledgments is impossible to be complete at this moment. Most of the materail were input by friends on CHPOEML over a few years. Another portion were input by innocent students who took an introductory computer science course. Larger works are stored in "Chinese Literature". They are acknoledged more properly in each file. In either cases, there are typos or missing characters that wait for your correction.
Please direct contributions, suggestions and corrections to
WeiChang Shann (³æºûûü)
Date: When Was It Done?
When was this resource created? One of the great features of the Internet is its potential for timeliness. One of the great dangers is its potential for the perpetuation of dated information. The resource should state whether it is the original or a later version. When was the last update? When can the next update be expected?
Example from the World Wide Web:
GRIEF AND PET LOSS
This article was written by Charlene Douglass. Copyright 1994, all rights reserved. This may be found on the Web at
* Pet Loss
* Normal Manifestations of Grief
Appearance: How Does it Look?
What is the physical layout of the information? Appearance is particularly important in online resources because we must interact with them. Clearly organized resources allow for rapid and efficient navigation and utilization. The bulk of one's time should be spent absorbing information rather than figuring out what is there and how to get to it. Text and visuals should be clearly and logically organized. Sufficient "white space" or blank screen area should be provided.
Example from the Washburn University "Virtual Law Library Reference Desk" on the World Wide Web:
HISTORIC DOCUMENTS AND SPEECHES
* DECLARATION of INDEPENDENCE
* BOOKS & Electronic Texts / Publishers / Journals
* PUBLISHERS Catalogs, Directories, Information
IF YOU WANT THE DOCUMENT SENT TO YOU, PRESS "P" WHILE VIEWING
Content: What's in There?
The most important quality indicator in an Internet resource is the information itself. What is the content of the resource? Is this valuable information? Is the Internet the most appropriate platform for it? Would it be easier to find and use the information in paper form? Don't be "wowed" by a fine layout and snappy graphics - they often hide the fact that an information resource is just a little short on information.
Example from the Washburn University "Virtual Law Library Reference Desk" on the World Wide Web:
THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
Action of Second Continental Congress, July 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America
WHEN in the Course of human Events,
it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands whch have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
WE hold these Truths to be selfevident, that all Men are
Connections: Where Else Does it Take You?
Many traditional information resources have footnotes throughout or a bibliography at the end. Internet resources take this one step further. Instead of merely listing references, Internet resources can sometimes provide direct connections to related resources. This is particularly true within the World Wide Web. Look for direct connections or lists of addresses of other Internet resources, in addition to static footnotes and reference lists.
Example from the American Mathematical Society gopher:
13. National Science Foundation Gopher (STIS)/
14. Other Scholarly Societies/
15. Other MathRelated Gophers/
16. Other Gopher Services/
17. World Wide Web (Lynx Client)/
Responsibility, Date, Appearance, Content, and Connections - these are the five Internet information quality indicators.
The Internet is a new and exciting place. It is tempting to embrace every word, sound-byte and image found there as indisputable truth. The five quality indicators above may help you make the finer distinctions between good information and impressive fluff. Apply these and some of your own personal indicators consciously at first. Also, keep bias and publishing characteristics in the front of your mind as you surf the Internet. Soon they will become second nature.
The application of quality indicators should help thin out the dense underbrush of the information jungle and clear the path for easy travelling through the wilds of the Internet.