Internet Assignment 3
Controversy 7 - Vitamin Supplements
Take a quick look at the four sites linked below and see if you can quickly and easily answer these questions about each site:

  • Who wrote the information?
  • Who is paying the bill to publish the information?
  • Is there an inherent bias?
  • Do the authors quote research that can be checked or repeated?
  • How recent is the information?


Site 1 Site 2 Site 3 Site 4

To find out who is supporting a site, we need to understand where Internet information comes from.

 

Major contributors of Internet information can be organized into 4 large categories:
  • Government sites, including 3 huge federally-funded national libraries,
  • Educational institutions: universities, colleges, &research institutions.
  • Commercial enterprises, everyone trying to sell you something.
  • Nonprofit organizations, all those organizations with a point of view, like Amnesty International or the American Red Cross.

You can tell which of these four categories is posting the information by looking at the URL, or address of the site. Here is the URL for the first site:

Think of the URL as directions the computer uses to get to the Website you want.
  • The first part, http://, tells the computer what protocol to use.

  • The second part, clinicaltrials.gov, is the domain name and tells the computer what system to look for.

  • The next part tells which directories (or folders) to find on that system. In this example, we have a directory called search, and inside that directory should be another directory called open.

  • The last part tells what document inside the open directory to load, in this case a document called intervention=vitamins.
It's that second part, the top level domain name, that tells us from which type of institution this document is coming. Fortunately for researchers, each one of the four big contributors uses a different domain name ending:
In our example URL, the domain name (clinicaltrials.gov) ends in .gov, which tells us that the webpage comes from a government site.

You can erase all the folders and files after the domain name and hit the enter or return button to get to the home page:

Now you can determine what organization or institution is supporting this page. In this particular case, what is the supporting institution?
Look again at the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sites. Notice that as you run your cursor over the links, the URL will appear at the bottom of your screen in the status bar. Without even clicking on the links, what can you surmise about the sites by their domain name? (Hint: Put your cursor over the links below and look at the 'status bar' at the bottom of your screen. You'll see the complete URL printed there, telling you that if you click on this link, this is the page that will load.)

Now click on each site and see if you can find answers to those 5 questions:

  • who wrote it,
  • what institution is supporting it,
  • is there a bias,
  • are sources given, and
  • when was it written.
To find out more about the supporting institution, copy the first part of each URL (http:// and the domain name) and paste it into your browser's address bar, then hit the return key. This will take you to the home page. You might have to go further. Look for something that says about us, or something similar.

In Site 2, you can click on the logo at the top of the page to get back to the home page.

In Site 3, you're taken directly to the homepage, so you won't have to copy and paste anything. You will have to click on the About Us link up on the top horizontal bar of links.

In Site 4, you'll need to scroll down to the second last option on the left panel of links: about us.

These are examples of the four different major categories of Internet contributors.

Unfortunately, these distinctions are beginning to blur. Educational institutions are choosing .com for their domain names. Commercial sites are choosing .org for their endings. And new endings keep cropping up. But this scheme at least gives us a rough idea of the majority of sites.

Let's try using the Google search engine to find more sites with information about vitamin supplements:

This is an example of phrase searching. Google will hold these 2 words together and search for only those sites that have those 2 words right next to each other, and in that order.

 

Now you should be able to recognize those domain names (circled in red) as information coming from specific types of organizations. The first one is from an organization, in this case the the American Heart Association non-profit organization, and probably has reliable information. The next 3 are commercial sites, immediately suspect because they are almost always trying to sell you something. But look again at the 3rd site: www.cbsnews.com. This is a commercial site, but they are selling news (CBS News), not vitamins, and so might be a little more reliable than www.costcutworld.com would be.
Scan through your own result list and pick out some sites with .edu, .org, .com or .gov domain names. You might notice some sites that have different domain endings:
    • .net stands for network, and is another non-profit designation, usually.
    • .au is a site from Australia.
    • .ca refers usually to Canada, and
    • .uk is for the United Kingdom. Look at the piece of the address just to the left of this country designation for the type of organization.

Pick a few of the sites from your list that look like they might have something useful, or at least entertaining, and visit them. Remember those key questions to ask when examining them for usefulness:

  • Who wrote the information? 
  • Who is paying the bill to publish the information?
  • Is there an inherent bias? 
  • Do the authors quote research that can be checked or repeated?
  • How recent is the information?


Let's look at one more site, the Wikipedia.org site for multivitamins. The problem with Wikipedia is that it is a contributor-based encyclopedia, and so is a little difficult to figure out who is actually contributing the article. And usually, it's not the work of just one person. Many people have made contributions, modifications, added links or clarifications, etc.

wikipedia link

Look at the contents of this particular article. Under Scientific assessment, there are entries for evidence in favor and against. Look at those two entries. Both of them have names, citations and links to studies and articles in support of the information, giving you some details to actually check on the information.

Also notice the dates in both entries. What can you say about the most recent studies cited or experts quoted on both sides? Our 5th question asks how recent or current the article is, something very essential when dealing with nutrition or health information.

 

Summary

In this lesson, you've had the opportunity to break down the URLs of Websites (addresses), in order to find the homepage and information about the organization that is sponsoring the Website (and probably adding its own bias). You've seen the 4 big original contributors to the world wide web, and what their domain names look like:

  • .gov - government sites.
  • .org - nonprofit organizations.
  • .edu - educational and research organizations.
  • .com - commercial organizations.

We've also used the search engine Google to search the phrase "vitamin supplement".

And we've used those 5 questions to help evaluate websites and determine whether the information on them is trustworthy:

 
  • Who wrote the information?
  • Who is paying the bill to publish the information?
  • Is there an inherent bias?
  • Do the authors quote research that can be checked or repeated?
  • How recent is the information?

  • Congratulations!

    You've almost finished another Web assignment. Go back to the classroom and take the Infocomp quiz #3. Once again, you'll get two chances to get everything perfect, but there is a chance that you won't get the exact same questions on the 2nd try. Only your best score will be saved.

    Address of this page:
    http://hhh.gavilan.edu/jhowell/ah11/cont7.html
    For questions or comments, please send e-mail to
    jhowell@gavilan.edu
    Last updated on June 13, 2010