ARTICLE 84: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection Methods: Online Data Sources Part 2 of 2 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Did you notice how many experts of all shapes and sizes post videos on the internet in which they predict the end of the world?

Some of them even give a date and time for the ultimate catastrophe.

And when it does not happen, they simply shift the date.

Do you believe them?

And if you do, what criteria should they meet for you to regard them as trustworthy prophets of doom?

I discuss the requirements for accuracy and authenticity of data in this video.

The internet can be a valuable source of information. However, people doing research need to be careful when using information obtained from internet sources. Any individual can upload information on the internet and all web site hosts are not equally responsible when it comes to accepting contributions. All information that you use in your research should be corroborated. This is an important consideration because electronic documents are not always quality assured, and documents are sometimes distributed electronically because publishers are not interested in them.

The accuracy an authenticity of information can be evaluated by checking the following:

  1. Checking the author.
  2. Checking the purpose.
  3. Checking for objectivity.
  4. Checking for accuracy.
  5. Checking for reliability and credibility.
  6. Checking for coverage.
  7. Checking for currency.
  8. Checking links.

Checking the author. You can check personal homepages on the World Wide Web, campus directory entries and information retrieved through search engines to find relevant information about an author. You can also check print sources in the library reference area and other biographical sources, for information such as the following:

  1. Is the name of the author/creator on the page?
  2. Is the page signed?
  3. Are his/her relevant profile and credentials listed, including occupation, years of experience, position or education? Stated differently, is the author suitably qualified to write on the given topic?
  4. Is there contact information, such as an email or web site address on the page?
  5. If there is a link to a web site address, is it for an individual or for an organisation?
  6. What is the relationship of the author with the organisation, if the address is that of an organisation, for example a university or consulting company?

Checking the purpose. It is often easier to judge the contents of a source if you know for what purpose the article was written. Also check for whom the article is intended.

Checking for objectivity. Objectivity is a prerequisite of any research. Even so, political and social issues are strong temptations to misuse and misinterpret information to fit a particular agenda. The following questions can be used to check if your interpretation of data is objective or not:

  1. Is there any indication if the information is claimed to be factual, just the opinion of an individual, or the propaganda of a body with ulterior motives, for example a political body, radical or religious group?
  2. Judging from the formulation and tone of the document, does the author’s point of view appear to be objective and impartial or not?
  3. Is the language and tone in which the document is written free of or loaded with emotional words and bias?
  4. Is the author affiliated with an organisation, the values and objectives of which might render the information biased and subjective?
  5. Is the document free of or cluttered with advertisements or sponsored links?

Checking for accuracy. Accuracy can mean different things to different people, depending on which paradigmatic approach you follow. However, data and the interpretation of data need to be valid, authentic, free of deliberate, accidental or coincidental misrepresentations and logical, to be of value for research purposes. The following questions can be used to check the accuracy of data and your research findings:

  1. Are the sources of factual information clearly and accurately acknowledged so that the information can be verified?
  2. Is it clear who has the ultimate responsibility for the accuracy of the content of the material and is the profile of this individual or group of experts known?
  3. Is the information corroborated by other sources or can you verify the information from your own knowledge?
  4. Has the information been reviewed or referred by an individual or group of experts with the necessary knowledge to conduct professional evaluation?
  5. Has the document been written on an acceptable academic level and is the information free of grammatical, spelling, and typographical errors?

Checking for reliability and credibility. Reliability and credibility go hand in hand with accuracy. Reliable information is information that is consistently the same over time and across at least the target group for the research, although it should ideally be the same in as wide a context as possible. Credibility is dependent on the authenticity, accuracy and trustworthiness of the data and research findings. You, as the researcher, will be responsible for credibility, which means that you will need to conduct the research in an accountable, honest and ethical manner. Reliability and credibility can be checked by asking and answering the following questions: 

  1. Why should anyone believe information from this source?
  2. Judging from the content and layout, does the information appear to be valid and well-researched, or is it written in an unstructured manner and inaccurately supported or not supported at all by evidence of authenticity?
  3. Has the document been published by a publisher with a good reputation for only publishing quality content that has been checked for accuracy, authenticity and objectivity?
  4. Are quotations and other strong statements or claims backed by sources that you could check through other means, and are the sources acknowledged where the statements or claims are made?
  5. Which university, college, research experts or scientists support or endorse the information?
  6. Do the university, college, research experts or scientists who support or endorse the information have a good reputation as being objective and an authority in the field of the document?
  7. Is the electronic material also available in hard (book or magazine) format?

Checking for coverage. Coverage refers to the notion of saturation. Your research findings should not be biased or rendered inaccurate because you did not consult enough, or the wrong sources of information. Although the extent of research is always limited by factors such as capacity, available time, funds, and the co-operation of members of the target group, you should at least achieve the purpose of your research. Coverage can be checked by asking and answering the following questions:

  1. Is the information relevant to the topic of your research?
  2. Does the document have information that is not available elsewhere?
  3. How in-depth is the material?

Checking for currency. The most important factor determining currency is, of course, recency. The more recent the information that you collected is, the more accurate, valid and relevant will your research analysis and findings be. Currency can be checked by asking and answering the following questions:

  1. Is the document reviewed regularly by someone who has the relevant knowledge and skills?
  2. Does the document or posting show when it was originally written, when and how often it was reviewed and when it was last reviewed?

Checking links. Each web site should be checked independently because the quality of web pages linked to the original web page may vary. This can be done by asking and answering the following questions:

  1. Are the links related to the topic of the document and are the web sites that are linked articulated to the purpose of the site and the content of the document?
  2. Are the links still current, or have some or all of them been deactivated or simply abandoned?
  3. What kinds of other sources are linked and are they in any way related to the contents and purpose of the document in which you are interested?
  4. Are the links maintained, evaluated and reviewed and do they show growth in terms of traffic volume, quality of content and the user-friendliness and professional and attractive layout of the sites?


Anybody can post data on the internet. Therefore, you need to be careful when using such data in your research.

The accuracy and authenticity of information can be evaluated by checking the following:

  1. The author. The author should be a known and reputable authority in the field of study. Also, the author should be acknowledged in the data source that you consult.
  2. The purpose of the data source. The data source should be relevant to your research topic.
  3. Objectivity. Be wary of articles, videos and other data source on the internet that were posted with ulterior, possibly damaging motives in mind.
  4. Accuracy. Data must be valid, authentic, free of misinterpretation and logical.
  5. Reliability and credibility. Data should be consistently the same over time and context.
  6. Coverage. Data should answer at least part of your research question and add value to your thesis or dissertation. On doctoral level the data should lead to new and improved knowledge.
  7. Currency. Data must still be relevant to the field of your research.
  8. Links. Quality data will mostly be shared and supported by more than one authority in the field of study. The more academic web pages deal with the topic and agree with the arguments, the more likely it is to be valid, authentic, accurate and recent.


You will ultimately be responsible for the quality of data that you collect and use in your thesis or dissertation.

You will also be accountable for the way you use the data.

It serves no purpose checking the accuracy and authenticity of the data that you collect if you bend the meaning of the original author to serve your purpose.

Or if you use accurate data to achieve ulterior, damaging motives.

As with all data that you collect and use, ethics is a critically important requirement for your research.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 83: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection Methods: Online Data Sources Part 1 of 2 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Should you steer clear from using data found on the internet for your research?

Are the possibilities that such data will be false or tainted too high to justify its use?

Is information in books more authentic, accurate and valid than data on the internet?

How does your study leader feel about this?

I discuss the internet as a source of data in this article and the article following on this one.

Written documents, oral interviews, demonstrations and many other data sources can be found on the internet. The internet can be used to gather data as well as to actively construct meaning through participation in social media networks.  It is true that many internet sources of information are of poor quality, not well-researched and unreliable. However, internet data is often much more recent than what is written in books and old information is often no longer relevant and, therefore, worth less than information on the internet. What is needed when consulting and using internet data is a good measure of logical thinking and corroboration. Triangulation is the obvious way in which to ensure that the data that you find on the internet is valid, although, as many of you probably already noticed, surprisingly many internet articles contain much the same, sometimes even identical information. This is probably because people obtain information on the internet and use it in their own articles without acknowledging their sources or making any effort to rephrase what they copied.

The internet is an umbrella term for innumerable technologies, capacities, uses, and social spaces. Because the types of social interaction made possible by the internet vary so widely, qualitative researchers find it necessary to define the concept more narrowly within individual studies. This is complicated by the fact that the study of the internet cuts across all academic disciplines. There are no central methodological or theoretical guidelines, and research findings are widely distributed and decentralised.

Internet technologies are ubiquitous and mobile. You have access to more books, articles and other data sources via your cell phone than what can be found in the books in university libraries (although university libraries now also offer access to the internet).

The internet is often regarded as a tool for collecting information because of how easily researchers can gain access to groups, download texts, capture conversations, observe individual and group behaviour, or interact with participants at a distance. A researcher might also utilise various capacities and interfaces available via the internet to augment or replace traditional qualitative methods of collecting, storing, sorting and analysing information. The internet is also associated with the use of data analysis software, even if it is not strictly necessary to enable the functioning of such analytical tools.

The internet can also be experienced as a place. Therefore, you might conceptualise it as a field site.  The internet facilitates the formation of relationships and communities. If these cultural formations rely on the internet for their composition or function, they are considered ‘internet-mediated’ or ‘digitally saturated’. Researchers of such cultural formations or network sociality might take their methods from a wide range of disciplines.

You will find that your emphasis in the use of the internet will shift depending on your ontological and epistemological premise, research goals and the specific form of the research question, hypothesis or problem statement. Rigorously analysing the connections between your questions, the subject of inquiry and the possible methods of collection, analysis and interpretation is an essential part of all good qualitative research. As the purpose of your research is identified and your study unfolds, certain characteristics of the internet will become more meaningful to you and those who will read your research report.

The following characteristics portray the internet much like a two-edged sword – it offers valuable facilities but also some flaws and threats:

1.         Communicating and connecting.

2.         Presence and location.

3.         Flexible time.

4.         Contexts of social construction.

Communicating and connecting. As a communication medium, the internet provides multiple means and modes of interaction, offering many choices and platforms for finding self-identity, building relationships and developing communities. We use the internet to help with many communicative activities.

For the most part, researchers focus less on the actual platforms for performance or networks of connections, than the communities made possible by the networks or the texts, still and moving images, and sounds facilitated by these networks. Researchers use the internet in ways that parallel but depart from or extend earlier communication media, such as letters, telephone, bulletin-boards, etc. Keep in mind, though, that the internet does not fully replace, but rather augments earlier communication media, at least for the time being.

A deficiency of the internet as a means of communication is that people easily misinterpret messages if they can’t see the speaker or writer. This is because social media, such as emails and Facebook, do not show the communicator’s body language, tone of voice or facial expressions. Even when using media where the communicator can be seen, for example in some visual media, the communicator can interfere with the clarity or meaning of the message, for example by wearing a mask and masking the voice.

If used as a research tool, the internet and its capabilities should be matched to the goals, topics and participants of the research project. There are many creative possibilities. Examples are not given here because the internet changes rapidly and new tools become available while old ones change all the time. Besides, students use social media not only for academic research but also in everyday social communication, with the result that most of them can think of better and more recent examples than what are written in a book, which might be a year or more old.

Presence and location. The internet brings many people who are geographically dispersed into contact with one another regardless of the distance between them. In this manner people can establish interactive contact globally through sight and hearing. In other words, the internet extends our senses, allowing us to see, listen and reach well beyond our local sensory limits. Many decades ago, we could communicate over long distances by telephone and two-way radio, telegraph and facsimile. Electronics, specifically the improvement of digital and networked quality of communication and information-sharing, substantially improved our ability to communicate while geographically dispersed.

Thanks to the internet, the meaning of “presence” has changed to include being able to communicate via the internet rather than just proximity to one another. We can communicate while seeing one another on our computer or cell phone screens.

The internet facilitates the development of varied cultural forms. Researchers might study communities that exist solely online in immersive environments. These ‘virtual worlds’ can have defined boundaries and stable cultural patterns. Alternatively, researchers might study how location or presence is more a temporary gathering of several people. We have witnessed how students in many countries rally to air their frustration with high university tuition fees. They extensively use the internet to start and grow the campaign and to gain international support for their plight.

Flexible time. The internet is not time bound. You can read something on the internet, stop halfway through the document and continue from where you stopped later. This enable us to manipulate time to suit our own schedule and the time that we have available for doing research.

Interaction on the internet occurs in multiple modes, alternately or simultaneously. This multi-modality is meaningful when designing or capturing interactions in the research context.  We normally employ more than one internet-modality at the same time. You can send status updates to your social network, play interactive games with friends, download music, update your blog and watch videos simultaneously. Even more, your computer can warn you when a message is received, and you can check the message without closing any of the other modalities on which you are working. These functions can be studied as phenomena or used as tools to augment the ways in which you engage and communicate with the target group for your research.

You can also use the facilities that your computer offers to conduct interviews. Creative researchers can even use technologies in ways unintended by the designers. Also, what you are doing on your computer is mostly invisible to other people (unless you intentionally involve them in your work), which gives you a good measure of confidentiality.

Contexts of social construction. Computers and smart phones can filter our worlds to bring only information that we are interested in, to our attention. Different applications allow you to access and use many different sources of information and electronic tools. Some of the applications might be interactive, allowing you to participate in certain activities or communication while others allow you access but not to manipulate the information or services provided.

We often use different applications to communicate with different audiences. Some tools allow us to select the participants with whom we wish to communicate. This is especially useful for interviewing and communicating with focus groups.

The internet comprises expansive forms of presentation and interaction that can be observed immediately and archived. This capacity facilitates our ability to witness and analyse the structure of talk, the negotiation of meaning and identity, the development of relationships and communities, and the construction of social structures. Linguistic and social structures emerging through social interaction via the internet provide us with an opportunity to track and analyse how language builds and sustains social reality.

The internet is unique in that it leaves visible traces of actions, movements and interactions. Internet technologies allow us to see the visible artefacts of this negotiation process in forms divorced from both the source and the intended or actual audience. This can give you, as a researcher, a means of studying the way social realities are displayed or how these might be negotiated over time.


The internet:

  1. Is an umbrella term for innumerable technologies, capacities, uses and social spaces.
  2. Is associated with the use of data analysis software.
  3. Facilitates the formation of relationships and communities.
  4. Is a communication medium.
  5. Is dynamic and continually expands and improves.
  6. Brings many people who are geographically dispersed into contact with one another.
  7. Offers us different applications to communicate with different audiences.
  8. Facilitates the development of varied cultural forms.
  9. Is not time bound.
  10. Can filter out events and phenomena to bring only information that we are interested in, to our attention.
  11. Leaves visible traces of actions, movements and interactions.

Not only can you find data on the internet; you can also use it to construct meaning.

Internet presentation and interactions can be observed and archived.

Data found on the internet must be checked for validity and accuracy.

You must give recognition to internet data sources that you use in your research.

Both researchers using qualitative and quantitative research approaches can use the internet as a source of information and for many other purposes.


The internet has become so rich and flexible in the data and research facilities that it offers that we can no longer ignore it.

Even so, you still need to accept information that you find on the internet with great circumspection.

Because some of the information on the internet is false.

Some people deliberately post information with deviant motives in mind.

But this also applies to books and articles that people write.

Even things that people say are not always true.

Therefore, you need to corroborate all the data that you gather, regardless of the source where you found it.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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