The internet can be an invaluable research tool. However, almost anyone with a bit of know-how can put a website together, and not everyone will be offering impartial advice. How can you tell whether the information that you looking at is trustworthy?
You can read a more general guide to finding reliable information on BBC Webwise.
Science on the web
There are some things that are particularly worth remembering when researching science topics on the internet.
Who and why?
The same golden rule applies for science websites as for anywhere else on the web. Think about who has written the page you are looking at, and why they might have written it. For example, advice from a company selling drugs might be different from advice on a site written by a doctor.
Check the URL
The URL (the web address you see in the bar at the top of your browser) will give you a clue to who wrote the page you are looking at. Addresses that end in .ac.uk or .edu will be university websites. Sites that end .gov or .gov.uk will be government sites. This can help you decide how to interpret the information you see.
Beware Chinese whispers
It's always tempting to embellish a story a little whenever you pass it on. Journalists and headline writers can be as guilty of this as anyone. It's always worth reading right to the end of an article to see whether the author has hidden a few disclaimers at the bottom of what sounds like a shocking story.
You can also check a story by doing a little research of your own. Most science stories start life as journal articles or press releases. If you can track these down then you might get a clearer idea of what the facts really are.
The links on the right of this page are a good starting point for finding science journal articles.
Don't believe the first site you find
Not all scientists agree about everything. Just because one scientist - or one report - suggests something does not necessarily mean it is true.
The global warming debate is a good example of this. Some scientists disagree about the extent of the impact we're having on our environment. A single quote from a single source won't necessarily give you a complete picture of what the rest of the scientific community believes
This doesn't mean you can never trust quotes from scientists. But if you're investigating something in the news, it's always worth looking around to see who's putting forward different opinions. Check a range of websites and get a feel for whether all the experts agree.
Science can be slow
Scientists sometimes need to carry out years of research before they can draw conclusions. Most of us aren't that patient.
You often read statements like this:
There is no scientific evidence that chemical X is harmful.
However, this sentence is potentially misleading, if you don't know the full story. Have scientists thoroughly tested chemical X? Or is there no evidence because scientists haven't had time to carry out all the trials they need to?
Keep an eye out for people who use scientific sounding explanations when they are not really necessary. If a website is written by scientists for scientists, then it's bound to have some technical terms. But if someone is using jargon to make an everyday product sound authentic, they might just be trying to sell you something!