Finding reliable information online

University of Tennessee

It’s so often challenging to sort through all the information found online. How can a person tell if the information is from a reliable source?  And from an Extension-educator standpoint, how do we know that the information is based on credible research so that we can feel comfortable passing that information on to consumers?  I’ll share a few strategies that I use when I search for credible online information:

  • Search for accurate information. When  I turn to the internet and am looking for science-based info, at the end of my query term, I type (site colon dot edu). This will help limit the ‘hits’ that I get to (mostly) websites with an ‘edu’ extension. For instance, if I am looking for information on food product dating, I might type into the search box: food product dating Sites affiliated with educational institutions tend to be a good place to start your search for credible information. Use the same strategy to search for government information, ending your query with
  • Realize that even scientists disagree. While scientists generally agree, they don’t always, especially if the topic is controversial. So it can be a good idea to review several credible sources as you learn more on a topic.
  • Consider the author of the information.  Is the person or organization a credible source of the information that is presented? This is an important consideration even if you even on an ‘edu’ site. Just because the author of information is at an educational institution, the author may be commenting on an area where they have no real expertise or authority. For instance, even though I would be a very poor source of credible information on anything to do with music or theater,  I have strong preferences in both those areas and I might be tempted to share those preferences with my online community. In another example, I recently came across information from Rutgers University (a university with top-notch scientists) wherein a specialist in soil fertility was highlighting purported benefits of raw milk for consumers (and he had written a paper expounding on the subject). But the scientific evidence is overwhelming that consuming unpasteurized raw milk is dangerous for the health of consumers (see FDA information here in English and En Espanol).
  • Some topics come and go, others are updated. Try to determine how recently the information was posted or shared online. Is the information still relevant, or have we learned more about a topic so that the information posted is no longer up-to-date? Or perhaps the information shared is on an emerging topic, likely to change how we teach and answer questions? A great example here would be public health and nutrition recommendations surrounding infant and child nutrition. Child-nutrition information that my mother had available to her from Extension in the 1960’s is different from what we would share with parents of young children today.
  • Don’t be fooled by a name. In this day and age, information is marketed like other commodities. Just because a source of information claims to be ‘the best’ or ‘real’ or the author an ‘expert’, be sure to dig deeper so that you learn, and share, information that is science-based and up-to-date.

And do remember: what makes Extension such a great organization is there are colleagues able and willing to help you find the information that you need, or to help you sort through the information you already have. Stay food safe! Barb