Saturday, February 23, 2008

Never Assume...Internet Research and Authority.


What’s the first thing most of us do when we need to fact check our research? Google it. Quick. Yes. Convenient. Absolutely. Accurate… Maybe and maybe not. Never assume.

Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s right. By the same token, just because it’s published in a book doesn’t mean it’s right. Never assume. Always cross reference your research if you want it to be accurate.

Why am I so adamant? When I’m not writing, I’m a librarian. I have to try to explain to students researching homework, people researching medical conditions, and yes, writers who fact check that just because it’s on an internet page does NOT mean the information is correct.

I can hear you ask, well how do you tell if you can trust the research? If something comes from a government or educational Web page, it will probably be trustworthy. That’s assuming you trust your government and educational institutions. Other than that…double check.

I know people that go to www.wikipedia.org and stop right there. Wikis are a great place to start your research, but again…never assume. Wikipedia® allows anyone to make edits to all entries. Now the wiki community usually does a great job of policing its information but it can be incorrect or biased. Check to see if the entry lists multiple reference links OFF the site. Are those sites authoritative? I’ve used Wikipedia to research the U.S. Navy Seals. The entry was concise and informative. In addition, it referenced public Navy sites. I followed the Navy links and yup, the information was distilled accurately. Wikipedia® is an excellent starting point, but keep going.

I’ll give you an example. I was doing some research for my historical romance (yes, it has a paranormal twist). The story is set in the Middle Ages and I wanted to be accurate – well as accurate as fiction can be anyway. So I went looking for reliable Web sites for information and I’ll share a few with you.



http://www.the-orb.net/index.html How do I know this is a “good” site? Well, I checked out the “About section” of the site (which right now is listed as “under construction” – I hate that). But I did read the home page. The ORB is housed at a college. So far, so good. ORB has an OCLC number. Okay, we’re good. What’s an OCLC number? It is a number assigned by the catalog librarians for the Online Catalog of the Library of Congress. If you can’t trust them – who can you trust? Not only that, but The ORB has a disclaimer which warns you not to accept everything at face value. I appreciate their warning.

What if I run across an individual’s Web site? How do I know if I can trust it? Just because it falls near the top of Google’s rankings does NOT make it authoritative. It just means a LOT of sites link to it. You can fudge Google. Really. Another thing to know about Google is that those sites at the top of the page on all of your search pages or on the right have paid money for positioning. That doesn’t mean they are bad or untrustworthy, but it means you are seeing advertisements. Time for many, many grains of salt. Or in the words of Robbie the Robot, “Danger, Will Robinson. Danger!”

Am I saying a site has to be a government or educational site to be accurate? Nope. Individuals can create wonderful sites. Let me share a couple of really great sites created by individuals with you.

Looking for medieval food? Look no further than http://www.godecookery.com/godeboke/godeboke.htm . I love this Web Site. On the front page of the site, you can see the site has been operating since 1997. In Internet years – that’s before dirt. There is also a nice bio of the author of the site. Again never assume, but this helps. The site was last modified in May of 2007 though. Be wary of sites that don’t get updated often. However, the site has been featured on the Food Network. Next do some browsing. If you like what you find, you may have found a treasure. I sure did.

Doing research on the Vikings? Visit the Viking Lady’s Answer page at http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/. She has won awards for her Web site. This is a good thing. If someone other than you thinks your site has merit, then just maybe it does. The other thing I like to see is a section on bibliographies. Granted, just because it’s in a book doesn’t make it so – but the Viking Answer Lady has done research and she explains where she got her answers so you can check up on her. That’s solid. Also, as I checked the page it was last updated on 2/22/2008. She’s on top of her stuff.

Long winded, aren’t I? What have we learned class?

1. Never assume.
2. You can start with Wikipedia®, just don’t end there.
3. When looking at a Web site, check the “about” information to see if the author sounds reliable.
4. Has the site won awards or been recommended by reputable agencies?
5. When was the last time the site was updated?
6. Is it in the “special” (read favored) position on a Google search page?
7. Do other reputable groups or individuals link to the site?
8. Does the site author provide a bibliography (or webography) of where they located their information? And is there more than one book or location indicated?
9. Has the Library of Congress cataloged the Web site?
10. Check more than one resource – cross reference your data.

That’s my top ten. Have I missed something? Know any great Web sites? Please post a comment so we can improve each other’s research skills.

3 comments:

  1. Awesome post, Francesca. You really put all that those google-related questions into perspective with a warning to think twice and makes sure-something we need to remember.

    debralee

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  2. Those are 10 great guidelines. I don't really have anything to add, except for the fact that IMO Internet references, for the most part, are really only useful for more casual research and not serious scholarly research, unless your research is about the internet ;)

    Jody W.

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