Chapter 4: Developing and Supporting Your Ideas
Research on the Internet
Many of the techniques you use to improve your library searches can help you online too. Keeping phrases together with quotation marks works on many sites, and you can use the minus sign (-) to filter out search terms you’d prefer not be included. Date range filters and other limiters are avail- able too, helping you narrow your search down even further.
Finding information online is relatively simple, so the challenge researchers face is determining what information is useful and whether it’s credible. A quick assessment is easy, and here are a few questions to guide you:
• Is the information current relative to your needs? Information in a rapidly-changing field like science or medicine can quickly become outdated. Even social science research is time-sensitive. Laws and demographics can change quickly, and you’ll want to be sure the information you’re using is up-to-date.
• Does the information address your topic? You may not find any single source that directly addresses all facets of your approach to a topic. You can, however, use information from multiple sources to support different parts of your work.
• Who is the source of information? The advice of an expert in a subject may be more valuable than the opinion of a layperson. On the other hand, a salesperson may know a lot about their product, but their perspective is informed by their goal of making a sale. With this in mind, you may ask yourself why was this information created?
The trustworthiness of information you find on the Internet can be hard- er yet to discern. While a source may have a current date listed, seem to offer relevant information, and claim to be an expert, it’s important to go beyond the information they give about themselves and verify that you can believe that they are honestly representing themselves and the information they offer.
Some advice on how to effectively evaluate online information is offered by Washington State University Professor Michael Caulfield, who suggests doing the following:
• Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research. Dubious claims can quickly be debunked with a Google search. Some websites that are dedicated to fact-checking include FactCheck.org, Politifact, and Snopes. The first two are focused on political claims, while the third addresses stories from various sources.
• Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information. You can achieve this by identifying where the information originated. If an article is describing a scientific study, tracking down the original study may reveal that its significant findings weren’t accurately represented.
• Read laterally: Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network. While some sources may claim to be experts in their subject areas, it may turn out that other experts in the field consider that source questionable.
• Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions. If you feel that you are overwhelmed by the amount of information, or can’t tell if sources are actually still relevant to your topic, it might be time to start over, or seek assistance.
There are many “tests” or “sets of criteria” that you can find in textbooks and on websites for deciding if a website is reliable. Words and concepts such as currency, authority, accessing only certain domain names (.org or .edu as opposed to .com), and inclusion of a bibliography or references section are common. Another is writing style: does the writing style show bias (such as use of name-calling or loaded language) or poor grammar and editing? These are all good signs that your site may have an agenda beyond fair presentation of facts.
One common source that many students have questions about using is Wikipedia. Most of us use Wikipedia or similar sites to look up the answers to pressing questions such as “Was Val Kilmer in the film Willow?” or “When is the next solar eclipse?” However, it is unlikely that your instructor will be satisfied with your using evidence from Wikipedia (or other Wiki-type sites).
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Wikipedia is, like a dictionary, a basic reference source. Like a printed encyclopedia, it is used for basic or general information about a topic, but this means that it is not suitable for serious college-level research. Additionally, because anyone on Wikipedia (or any Wiki site) can update information, there is no guarantee that what you read will be up-to-date or correct. While Wikipedia and its editors make every effort to maintain the accuracy of entries, with millions of pages on the site, that isn’t always possible. Sometimes Wikipedia pages display inaccurate information, including hoax articles or prank edits.
These are typically corrected quickly by editors who notice a change has been made and fact-check to verify whether the information is true.
When it comes down to it, Wikipedia is a good place to go to obtain basic information or general knowledge about your subject. You can use the references at the bottom of the page (if there are any) to look for information elsewhere. But saying to an audience, “my source for the information in this speech is Wikipedia” will probably do little to convince your audience that you are knowledgeable and have done adequate research for the speech.
Keeping in mind the considerations discussed in this section will help you select online sources for use in your work. They will also help you as you navigate the breadth of information on and offline in your daily life.