Ensuring good online research skills can be tricky with today’s ever-more crowded and noisy internet. While, “Don’t rely on Wikipedia,” and “Look for primary sources,” are good advice, it’s not enough.
For many of us, Google is the go-to first stop in any internet research effort. In fact, a full 94 percent of teachers say that’s where their students are “very likely” to turn for a typical research assignment, a Pew Research Center survey found in 2012. (Second on the list, unsurprisingly, was Wikipedia – 75 percent “very likely” – while YouTube (!) and other social media sites came in third, with 52 percent.)
The “vast majority” of those teachers agreed their top priority should be “teaching students how to ‘judge the quality of online information.’ ”
That ability to judge is an increasingly valuable skill. Search engines like Google aren’t necessarily the problem. It’s the results they lead to, which can run the gamut from Wikipedia and astroturf websites to highly reliable academic journals and questionable, non-peer-reviewed ones. (University of Colorado research librarian Jeffrey Beall maintains a list of “possible, potential or probable predatory open-access journals” on his site, Scholarly Open Access.)
Google and Wikipedia are great tools, no question. But it’s important to understand they are always starting points for research … not end points.
After beginning at one of these resources, you need to dig a bit deeper and filter the good search results from the not-so-good ones. The key is: consider the source.
That’s something most of us can easily relate to. Chances are, you long ago figured out which of your friends and acquaintances you can rely on for accurate information about what’s
happening in your social circle … and which ones tend to over-dramatize, exaggerate and outright lie about things. Websites on the internet must be judged in a similar way.
One assessment of website accuracy found that government (.gov or .state) and organizational websites (.org) were most reliable (80.9 percent and 72.6 percent accurate, respectively), while news sites and sponsored links averaged only about 50 percent accuracy (50.9 percent and 50.7 percent accuracy, respectively). Retail product review sites fared worst of all, averaging only 8.5 percent accuracy.
While that study focused only on how well a site’s recommendations matched American Academy of Pediatric standards for safe infant sleeping, those rules of thumb generally hold true for any kind of search: established government and organization websites tend to have the most reliable information. They’re also where you’re most likely to find primary-source material … that is, official documents, original data and expert reports.
Tips for high-quality internet research
- Always look for the “who” behind your web sources. Is it a scientific organization or a recognized charity, or a group you’ve never heard of before? If you can’t find any solid contact information – full names (first and last), phone numbers, addresses – on the “About” or “Contact” page, be skeptical.
- Not sure about a source’s credentials? Do a Google News search of the person’s or organization’s name. This might turn up red flags about a source’s reliability; for example, you probably don’t want to recommend health products from a business that’s being investigated by the US Food and Drug Administration for toxins in their treats.
- Think a story sounds fishy? Go to Snopes.com, the urban-myth-checking site, and do a search there. This site has been investigating internet rumors and tall tales since 1995, and does an excellent job of backing up its findings with solid research. (Note: always check the references it cites on your own, so you’re going back to the original source.)
- Check for backup. If the information at the site you’re looking at is reliable, it should be backed up by similar data from other dependable resources. For example, you can check population or demographic figures against data available online at the US Census Bureau.
Shirley Siluk is a Florida-based journalist and author who has written for Greenbang, Web Hosting Magazine and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. Her most recent book is Prove It: Fact-Finding Secrets of a Fanatical Online Researcher. She blogs about research news and tips at Prove It! Research.
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