End User's Corner - November 1996

Jack SolockThe Internet: Window to the World or Hall of Mirrors?

Information Quality in the Networked Environment

Jack Solock, Special Librarian

November 1996

In the previous two articles, we have discussed concepts and strategies for finding Internet resources using the two types of finding aids, search indexes and subject directories.

Knowing how to find networked resources is important, but knowing how to judge the quality of those resources is even more important. If the resources that you can now find are of low quality, then the time spent in learning how to find them has been wasted.

The Internet and its main distribution arm, the World Wide Web, promise instant access to almost unlimited information resources. The network has broken down many traditional barriers to publishing that exist in the print world. Almost anyone with a network connection can "publish" on the net. The democratizing aspects of this new publishing ability have been hailed by some as an information revolution. A new window on the world has been made available to millions of computer users.

Or has it?

T. Matthew Ciolek, maintainer of the Coombsweb (Australian National University) Social Sciences Server (http://coombs.anu.edu.au/), which maintains ten World Wide Web virtual libraries (http://www.w3.org/pub/DataSources/bySubject/Overview.html), including the Information Quality Virtual Library (http://coombs.anu.edu.au/WWWVL-InfoQuality.html), thinks not. In a fascinating paper entitled "The Six Quests for The Electronic Grail: Current Approaches to Information Quality in WWW Resources," (http://www.ciolek.com/PAPERS/QUEST/QuestMain.html) he compares the Internet not so much to a window to the world as to a "hall of mirrors, each reflecting a subset of the larger configuration."

"It is a spectacular place indeed, with some mirrors being more luminous, more innovative or more sensitive to the reflected lights and imagery than others. The result is a breathless and ever-changing 'information swamp' of visionary solutions, pigheaded stupidity and blunders, dedication and amateurishness, naivety as well as professionalism and chaos."

Of course, Ciolek is tossing pebbles at a tidal wave; few if any people are going to stop and think critically about the quality of the information available through fantastic new technology. The hall of mirrors analogy is apt, because many web sites contain more pointers to other web sites than native content. Discovering information is referred to as "surfing." And it is not very long before anyone who uses the web starts to feel like a person in a room with mirrors on all the walls.

Having fallen so in love with the new technology container that allows us to transmit information, we have forgotten about the contents of the container. Is the Internet worth using as an information medium?

The answer, I think, is yes, but with a very strong "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware). Users should be aware before they start that vast numbers of information sites are worth very little to the researcher or educator. Why? Because the information they contain is unreliable, out of date, inaccessible, poorly organized, or some combination of all of these.

This column will attempt to provide users some quality signposts to look for when they are analyzing networked information. Most of these signposts have analogues to print resources, but a few are unique to the networked medium. They fall into the following categories: content, access, and design.


"Knowing how to find networked resources is important, but knowing how to judge the quality of those resources is even more important."

Content is the key, as the content of a site either makes it or breaks it. Questions you should ask when looking at the content of a site include:

  1. Is the site a provider of original content or mostly a pointer site? There is nothing inherently wrong with creating or using pointer sites, but users should be aware of the difference between a site that primarily provides native content and one that functions as a pointer to other sites. In either case, the following questions should be answered at the site.
  2. What is the purpose of the site? Is it stated? Does it fulfill that purpose?
  3. Who is the author? This should be stated clearly at the site. Once you know who the author is, ask what is the authority of the author? If it is a person, is he or she known in the subject field? If it is an institution, is it known for providing information in the field?
  4. Is the content accurate? Objective? In order to ascertain this, you might need to check other networked and non-networked sources. If there are biases in the information, are they noted at the site? For pointer sites, are the pointers relevant to the stated purpose of the site? Are they annotated and selective, or scattered and numerous?
  5. Is the content current? Is the site kept up to date? If it is an archive site, what it the source of the information? If it is a pointer site, what percentage of the links work when you click on them?
  6. What is the scope of the information? It should be stated at the site, but if it isn't, you must determine how broad and deep the content coverage is. If there are pointers, do they broaden the scope of information, narrow it, or simply add to it?
  7. Who is the audience intended to be? Is it a children's site, undergraduate, graduate, etc? Again, this should be clearly stated at the site. Does the site meet the needs of its stated audience?

Using these questions as a guideline, users must determine the information quality of a site based on their knowledge of the subject and their intellectual judgement, just as they would an information resource in another format. If you cannot determine the quality of a site, look at it with a skeptical eye. Use other media (books, journals, magazines, encyclopedias, etc.), or ask a librarian or known subject specialist about the topic to find out more. Remember that the Internet is just one of a suite of information resources available to you.


This is a variable that has been touched upon in an earlier column (http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/scout/toolkit/enduser/archive/1996/euc-9607.htm) from the point of view of content providers, but it also should be examined from the point of view of end users. Is the content of the site provided in a way that allows access to the most users? A site that says "best viewed with Netscape 3.0 or Internet Explorer," is a site where quality will not be ascertainable to a great many users because they either do not have the software or the connectivity to view the resource.

In cases where multimedia graphics are the content, this is unavoidable. However, as too many frustrated users know, many sites gratuitously use multimedia and graphics. A site that provides quality content should provide it either in a format that is available to the most basic Internet connection, or provide it in many formats (ftp, gopher, email).

The Internet allows for interactivity. One of the best examples of this is the CGI based form look up that allows users to query databases for specific information. Again, many users for whom a known quality information resource would be available can be excluded because they don't have interactive capability. A quality information resource will provide this type of information in many formats, so that users without interactive connectivity can also profit from the information.

Books are an example of a media that is available to anyone who can read. The container is simple. Open it and turn the pages. What is inside the container can vary almost infinitely, although it does remain static. Internet information containers are not limited to static delivery methods, but as a result of this, can unintentionally contain information that isn't accessible by a large number of users. This is the reason that quality considerations in the Internet world must include access.


Again, this is an issue that is more relevant to networked information than to traditional print information. Does the design of the site facilitate easy access to not only the content of the site, but also to the information about the purpose, authority, accuracy, currency, scope, and audience? The first item on any site that users should look for is the "about this site" section. It should be easy to find and should plainly answer the above-mentioned content questions.

After content questions have been answered, design questions should be considered. Because the Internet is not a linear medium like print, design is a crucial issue. How many levels down must a user go to find relevant information? Does the design of the site allow content to flow logically to the user? For sites that contain much information, is a search interface provided? Do the internal links of the site work? Are simple navigation methods available on each page? Do they allow for returning to the home page, or the beginning of the current information section? Lack of such navigation aids is an indicator of poor information quality, even if content questions have been addressed.

In the end, no one but you can determine the quality of the networked information for your purposes. These are just a few guideposts to help you along the way. Because in the enormous "hall of mirrors" that the Internet has become, there really is a window to the world. But it is up to you to find it.

A few more detailed checklists that may help you in your search for quality information.

Quality Info. Systems - Catalogue of Potent Truisms, edited by T. Matthew Ciolek.

Criteria for evaluation of Internet Information Resources, by Alistair Smith of the Department of Library and Information Studies, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand).

Teaching Critical Evaluation Skills for World Wide Web Resources, by Jane Alexander and Marsha Tate, Wolfgram Memorial Library, Widener University (Chester, Pennsylvania).

Thinking Critically about World Wide Web Resources, by Esther Grassian, UCLA College Library.

InterNIC News

This article originally appeared as part of the End User's Corner, a featured column of InterNIC News, which was published monthly by Network Solutions, Inc. and InterNIC from May 1996 through March 1998. As of April 1998, End User's Corner will be published by the Internet Scout Project.

Copyright Susan Calcari and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, 1994-1998. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the End User's Corner provided the copyright notice and this paragraph is preserved on all copies. The Internet Scout Project provides information about the Internet to the US research and education community under a grant from the National Science Foundation, number NCR-9712140. The Government has certain rights in this material.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Wisconsin - Madison or the National Science Foundation.

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