Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

There’s a lot of good to be said about using the internet for research; you have access to endless amounts of information, it’s easy to investigate related topics, you digest information through different mediums (i.e. videos, text, images, audio, etc.), and best of all, all this information is literally at your fingertips. It’s hard to beat those benefits, and it’s hard to imagine that less than 10 years ago internet-based research was considered dubious at best. Back then, teachers and professors reminded me to question everything I found online and put that information through rigorous tests to determine its reliability.

Fast-forward a few years and it’s hard to even remember not relying on the internet for information. Much of the research I do now relies on the internet, or at least begins with a search on the internet. Although it’s a lot easier to find accurate, quality information online, we still need to evaluate what we find online for accuracy, and be aware of the author’s perspective.

Anyone can post information online, and while that fact is one of the beauties of the internet, it also creates a problem—the information is not peer-reviewed, meaning that other experts on the subject did not evaluate the material for accuracy or quality. That’s not to say that you won’t find peer-reviewed work online, databases for instance contain academic, peer-reviewed articles; but what you find online has to be measured against other information to determine quality. The peer-reviewed issue is one of the biggest reasons why Wikipedia is not a good source for formal research, I myself have used wiki to learn some basic facts, but I try to avoid it completely because it’s too tempting to believe the information.

There’s no guarantee that what you find online will be perfectly accurate, but there are a few things to look for that suggest quality, accurate, more objective information (more on objectivity later). Sites that end with .edu are associated with a particular university, it’s a good indicator of quality. Sites ending with .gov are created by a government agency, meaning that the information is generally more objective, and has been reviewed by other experts. Sites that end with .org are generated by an organization, this can be a good thing, but you also need to think about that organization—what does it do, what are that organization’s values and ideas? Depending on what you’re researching, and how you plan on using that information, a .org site could be great, or it could be terrible. An organization is an extremely broad term—you just need to think about what that organization stands for and what its reputation is. You can often find information about the group by checking the “about us” page if available, or see the very bottom of the webpage.

Then there’s .com sites, a category which most websites fall under. Personally, I find these sites much harder to trust because there’s no way to verify the reliability of author. Blogs, like the one you’re reading right now, should always be read with a grain of salt. I would say the same for a lot of the information you find online. Every writer, company, group, etc. has a particular perspective, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but you should consider who the “author” is and what are their ideas and values? What do they believe? Are they connected to or affiliated with anything? What causes do they care about? You can often find the answer to that last question by looking at a person or group’s social media—if you want to creep on them of course.

All of this depends however on the kind of research you’re doing and what you’ll need it for. If you’re doing research on the online habits of pet owners a personal blog might be a great source to tell you about that topic. It all depends on what you need and what you’re using it for. The most important advice to stay true is the author’s perspective—who are they? What are their values and beliefs? And why did this person write this information?

On another note, search engines like Google, are great for sifting through lots of information, but you have to remember that its search capabilities are based on algorithms determined by a person. It’s not an unbiased reflection of the information available online, it searches for key words and phrases which means that good, relevant information may not show up in the results if you don’t use the “right” search words. And many times certain sites are given preference because of advertising, or because of common search habits. Not finding something does not mean it doesn’t exist. In which case you might need to try different terms, or try a different method of research, I’ll write about that in the next post.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

But don’t take my word for it. You reader, know little about me. I keep myself private online because I’m concerned about my privacy—that’s a whole other subject. But just so you know, I received both my undergraduate and graduate degree in history. I’ve taught writing and history, I’ve worked in art and history museums, I love reading and writing fantasy and science fiction. That’s probably not enough to make you trust my information, but I encourage you to verify what I’ve said here.

 

Here’s some other tips about online research:

https://digitalliteracy.cornell.edu/tutorial/dpl3000.html

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/2/8/

http://www.ipl.org/div/aplus/internet.htm

On search engine results and bias:

http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/06/07/412481743/what-makes-algorithms-go-awry

http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/03/15/470422089/can-computer-programs-be-racist-and-sexist

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