January 4th, 2010

(In)Accuracy on the Web

If you’ve ever asked a librarian about research on the internet, you’ve probably heard that you should be careful about the information you find. Most internet sites lack editors and fact checkers (that’s YOUR job), so there are many factual errors and inconsistencies that can creep in. That’s compounded by the fact that many websites are researched using only the internet, so an inconsistency on one website can spread all around the web.

But, I bet you’ve wondered, just how often can that happen?

I can’t give you any statistics, but I do a lot of searching and I periodically run into factual errors on the internet.

Here are two recent ones:

Here’s an image of Elizabeth Cady Stanton from a website that appears to be devoted to American History.


And here’s Clara Barton from a National Parks Service website:


Look familiar? I’d trust the Parks Service on this one. But this isn’t the only example of Clara being mistaken for Elizabeth. A Google image search finds several others.

Sometimes the mistake is one of degree. This Wikipedia entry on the children’s rhyme Yon Yonson claims that the song dates “back to the time the Swedes arrived in the New World.” There’s even a footnote. Although the description of the footnote have been removed since I last visited this Wikipedia entry, the footnote still links back to a Wisconsin Historical Society entry for a document about the first Swedish settlement in Wisconsin. Seems legitimate, but it has nothing to do with Yon Yonson. Not even a Jan Janson!

And the real story is that the Swedish settlement of what is now the United States predates the European settlement of Wisconsin. New Sweden was a colonial outpost in Delaware in the early 17th century. Check out this encyclopedia entry on New Sweden from Credo Reference.

Whenever searching the internet, it’s important to keep a watchful eye on anything you find. Repetition doesn’t make something true. Nor does a citation from a legitimate source guarantee that it was used correctly. Let your own knowledge help guide you in sniffing out inaccuracies, and when in doubt, do some more research. While mistakes do appear in more traditional, published resources (I have found those as well), it’s less likely to occur repeatedly. If you find two legitimate sources that agree (and that don’t cite each other directly), you’re probably on good factual footing.


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