Found a source with no named author? Uh Oh, what should you do?

As we mentioned in our article on  deep web source vetting, you are trying to find primary sources and vet them. For contemporary events, the primary source may be a website with no author mentioned. Vetting of an unknown Internet author will cause us some pain and suffering. The author may be a crackpot, or a retired engineer who’s spent 20 years researching the topic.

There is a school of thought, to simply throw out any article that has no author. The reasoning being that whoever wrote it doesn’t stand behind it enough to put his name on it.  The rub is, that in real world research, we may not be able to do that because the author could have said something really, really interesting that drastically changes the direction and scope of our research.

10 Steps for Vetting Unknown Internet Sources:

  1. See if the material you found is actually a copy of a primary source. So go clip out a unique sentence and use one of several search engines to see if you can find the original website/web page. This may provide you with 1. True Author and/or 2. Date written.
  2. Examine the article dispassionately. Who is  the apparent target audience? Is it written focused on a very tight niche aspect of the topic, or as a broad general introductory style?  Is it using proper citations of primary and secondary sources, or is it citation-less?  This will give you an idea of if the author is from a scholarly background or writing for the masses.
  3. If you think you’ve found the originating web page and site, but still have no author, then look at the domain extension.  Is it *.com, *.org, *.net?  Or *.edu or *.mil (these two have higher authority as one is for universities and the other military.)  If you don’t recognize the extension, research it.  If it were .cl that would be Chile, and .cm would be Cameroon. This tells you something.
  4. Look at the full domain, is it a free blogging service that anyone can use? Or is it a dedicated blog/website like www.deep-web.org?  Free blog or free web service does not inspire any kind of authority, dedicated blog/website is a step up. But we want to know more.
  5. We next want to know more about our anonymous author’s dedicated blog/website.  We will use a ‘WhoIs’ feature to see who owns the site. These days about half the time a website will have a privacy feature that won’t let you find out, but sometimes you can.  I recommend you use http://www.networksolutions.com/whois/index.jsp to find out who owns the domain. That may give you a name and address.
  6. Next we want to know a bit about what other websites this person may own. Go use a Reverse IP lookup like http://www.websiteneighbors.com (websiteneighbors has malware as of Nov9,2012 -find another) to see what other websites reside on the same server. Bear in mind, the server is a for-hire server that will have 1-60 websites on it. If there are 45 websites, maybe our author owns 2-3 and they will likely be on that same server.  So you will have to go look up the ‘WhoIs’ information for all 45 websites to find the 2-3 he owns. Yes, it is a big hassle. But whoever told you research was easy was trying to sell you something.
  7. Hopefully, what you come away with are some facts that lead to easy analysis. Perhaps you were researching an article on the history of a particular Nazi mayor. You did your WhoIs search and found the website owner, discover he also has other websites of 1. A Holocaust Denier website and a 2. Carpet Cleaning website that shows he is a sole proprietor. So at this point you can draw the conclusion he’s not much of an authority on WW2 history.
  8. Now if you did your steps and struck out on step 5 at the WhoIs with a result that shows no name, all is not lost. You still have a feeling for who the target audience was, thus a feel for how scholarly the author is.
  9. Check the site from top to bottom, see if there is a ‘contact us’ page. Is there an email?  What domain does it go to?   Check the ‘privacy policy’ page see if there is a company named mentioned.  While you are at it, check for names in the ‘legal’ page if there is one.  Is there a copyright? Who’s name is it?
  10. Once you have a name start doing your deep web background check on the author. Is he/she licensed in something? Check the state licensing websites.  Find the main forums for your topic and search for his last or first name. Often forum let you put a city, that will help disambiguating common names to give you a likely match (ie. You are researching an author-less article about meteorites for a Texas based audience and you find a thread by Steve in Fruitvale, TX posted on a meteorite hunting website with a forum. Writing styles are very similar, you may have a match!). I’d start with Pipl.com, then Linkedin.com and branch out from there.
  11. OK, so this is a bonus, one past #10. If it is really important, you could use the ‘contact us’ form on the website and send a message to try to get a response. Usually these webforms will forward to an email and any responses will come from their email account with (hopefully) identifying information.  Sneaky, I know, but good research is good research.

With a good bit of work, you can flush out who your mysterious author is and a bit of a background story. From there, you will need some good research skills to know just how much authority to grant his work.