When looking for health information online it’s critical to evaluate both the source, and the content being presented to you. Evaluating health information can be broken down into two large steps: lateral reading and closer reading. This LibGuide will provide strategies for both.
As a general rule of thumb when looking for health information, stick to reputable sites from educational institutions, government sources, and health related associations and societies.
Lateral reading involves contextualizing the source rather than closely examining it. Two strategies for lateral reading are click restraint, and SIFT.
A quick scan of URLs, titles and page descriptions can give you a sense of your search results breadth and depth. Before clicking through and evaluating results thoroughly, see if you can determine something about the relevance and reliability of sources in your result set (are the titles on topic, are they inflammatory?, is the organization well known?) The purpose of this method is to avoid clicking the first link or two just because they're at the top of the results display.
Watch Stanford History Education Group's short video below (2:19 minutes) for more on how click restraint can direct you to better sources.
Mike Caulfield's SIFT directs you to do 4 things when looking at sources. They are:
Stop: Examine the source: is it credible? Reputable? If you're feeling overwhelmed, consider what the original objective was when you started looking at sources. Is the source/information you're looking at relevant?
Investigating the source: Look at where the information is coming from. Who published this? What was their purpose? What are the potential biases? Asking these questions before doing any reading helps determine the credibility and trustworthiness of a source.
Find better coverage: Examine the claim a source is making. Can you find other sources that confirm or refute the claim? Compare and contrast claims across different sources.
Trace claims, quotes, and media back to original context: When bits and pieces of one work is taken and read somewhere else, it loses its context, and may be misunderstood or misinterpreted. To understand a claim better, it's best to find the original source and its original context.
Lateral reading is always a crucial first step in the source evaluation process. Once you have narrowed down your source list, it’s important to evaluate content with a closer reading. In 1998, six broad criteria for evaluating health information were published in a Policy Paper: Assessing the quality of health information on the internet. Variations of the criteria have been used ever since.
Especially critical to the quality of a site are its external links that will lead readers to other authoritative sources.