Not so long ago if you were writing an essay or doing research there were only books and journals, and looking for information often entailed a trip to the library. Today, with a smartphone and internet access, you can look up anything, almost anywhere. There’s an enormous amount of information on every conceivable topic that can be found online, but sometimes it can be tricky finding what you want. When you do come up with a promising source, it’s not always easy to tell if what you’ve found is correct or reliable.
Begin With a Search Engine
When searching for information, if you don’t seem to be able to find what you want, it’s worth broadening your range of search terms. For instance, if you look up “modern architecture”, and then “modernist architecture”, you will get a different set of results. Depending on the nature of your enquiry, it can be worth widening or narrowing the search: “renaissance architecture”, “early renaissance architecture” and “late renaissance”, for instance. Also, don’t forget to try both British and American spellings.
Verify the Source
When you’ve found some promising-looking sites, it’s worth flicking through a reasonable number of them to see if what they say appears to be consistent. Some websites look more authoritative than others, but it’s worth looking more carefully at their credentials.
Look at the “about us” section to see who is behind the website. Ask yourself what sort of vested interests they have. For instance, I recently came across a website specialising in food poisoning whose claims had been widely circulated on Facebook. When I looked into who was behind the site, it turned out that they were US lawyers specialising in food poisoning cases. They made seemingly authoritative pronouncements on food safety, but I noticed that these were never backed by links to medical or scientific articles. This made me less inclined to believe them.
Cross-Check the Information
This brings me to the next important step: cross-check the assertions you find, particularly if they seem odd or revolutionary. If the website you’re looking at mentions scientific or medical research, or an academic study, the relevant article will usually be online. If it’s not, this should ring alarm bells. I’ve come across instances where a “research publication” was mentioned, where the journal in which it was said to have been published did not even exist.
If you are on looking specifically for academic publications, you could also have a look in Google Scholar, which indexes such publications. There are other academic search engines, such as PubMed, the medical search engine, and you can find more examples by typing “academic search engines” and “academic databases” into Google.
There’s an enormous amount of information available from the internet, and it can be tricky to assess its quality. The appearance of a website is not always a reliable guide to the accuracy of its contents. It’s always worth scrutinising the ownership of a website, and looking for vested interests which might affect the information they provide. Especially if something looks unusual, cross-check the information, and look for the primary source.
Finally, it pays to be aware that the same research can be interpreted very differently by different people. A current example is a recent publication about weekend hospital deaths, from which the British Secretary of State for Health (a man with no scientific or research expertise) drew conclusions that were completely different from those of the original researchers.
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