published Friday, September 13th, 2013

Eight tips to help students find reliable information in web searches

Staff Photo Illustration by Laura W. McNutt
Staff Photo Illustration by Laura W. McNutt

According to Netcraft, a U.K.-based online service provider, the Internet contains more than 716 million active websites. If each of those sites weighed as much as the average engagement-ring diamond, they would collectively tip the scales at 186 tons.

And just like diamonds, not all web pages are created equal. Some have hidden flaws that are only revealed after close scrutiny.

To the budding academic, then, the Internet is a decidedly double-edged tool -- a potentially boundless source of easily accessible facts and figures and a treacherous minefield of misinformation.

According to Lee McDade, the assistant superintendent for campus support for Hamilton County Schools, there is no system-wide policy about using the Internet as a research source. Instead, he says, schools develop individual policies regarding online research.

For his part, McDade says he thinks the Internet isn't a fail-safe academic resource.

"I think there are legitimate sources on the Internet, and I still think there are sources that aren't legitimate on the Internet," he says. "The Internet is a good tool to use for research, but is it the only tool? No."

According to Miniwatts Marketing Group, a research and marketing company tracking Internet usage around the world, about 73 percent of Tennessee residents and 76 percent of Georgia residents were Internet users as of June 2010. With more students growing up in a society increasingly reliant on the Internet, learning to separate online fact from fiction is a skill they'll need in order to research more efficiently and to minimize red ink on their papers.

Here are eight tips to help students find reliable information online:

1 Be suspicious and follow the trail of breadcrumbs. Don't trust the validity of a page that quotes another source. Just like in a game of "telephone," statements online can be misinterpreted or warped the further they get from their author, so it's always best to track information and statements back to their originator.

Example: If a blogger reports that James Cameron has issued a press release about beginning work on sequels to "Avatar," search for and cite the release, not the blogger.

2 Where is the money coming from? Before you use information from a website, look for an "About Us" or similar section and find out more about the site's owner. Seemingly benign organizations often can have connections to parent companies or special interest groups that might indicate a potential bias to the information they share or neglect to share.

Example: When researching statewide drunk driving statistics, the Tennessee Department of Safety's website is probably a more neutral source than an activist group such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

3 Know your domain. A quick way to get an idea of who owns a website is to look at the domain at the end of its web address. The .com and .org domains originally distinguished for-profit and nonprofit groups but now are unrestricted and can be used by either. Since some .org sites could actually be run by companies with a commercial interest to protect or promote, students generally should seek information from more trustworthy sites, such as academic (.edu), military (.mil) or governmental (.gov). When in doubt about a site's ownership, follow "Where is the money coming from?"

Example: Looking for information about the moon? MoonConnection.com could be a reliable source, but a teacher is more likely to accept information from the Lunar and Planetary Science section at NASA.gov.

4 Numbers are good; newer numbers are better. A government or academic study can be a gold mine for backing up a thesis, but students should look before they cite. The Internet hasn't existed forever, but it has been around long enough to contain plenty of out-of-date information. Whenever possible, students should look for the most-recent study. They also should look at a study or poll's sample size -- how many people were questioned -- and avoid conclusions based on answers from a limited group.

Example: Information from the 2000 Census is still accessible, but students looking for the United States' population can find more current information via the U.S. Census Bureau's U.S. and World Population Clock, which is updated every second.

5 Need a book? Read one online. Some teachers still require that research papers include information from multiple sources, including physical books. Unless an instructor insists on it, however, that's no reason to make a last-minute drive to the library. Millions of books, periodicals and other documents have been uploaded, in full, to free online libraries such as Google Books, The Gutenberg Project and Haithi Trust.

Example: Need to check one of Heathcliff's lines of dialog in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights"? Just search the text of the book at The Internet Archive (Archive.org).

6 Wikipedia is a gateway, not a source. With more than 30 million articles on everything from Japanese animators to extrasolar planets, Wikipedia might seem like the ultimate Internet resource. Unlike established, curated encyclopedias such as Compton's or The Encyclopedia Britannica, however, Wikipedia is compiled by volunteers, many of whom are not academics. But in recent years, the inclusion of a reference section at the end of articles has made the site an excellent place to begin research. Use Wikipedia to become familiar with a topic in broad strokes. See a fact that could help? Click on the footnote next to the statement, follow the attached link, then cite the original source. Avoid articles that have warnings such as "more citation needed," "contains original research" or "appears to be written like an advertisement."

Example: If Wikipedia's article on Australia suggests that humans arrived there 42,000 years ago, click on the link to the university paper the author cited, "Dating the First Australians," and use that as a source instead.

7 Don't settle for the first hit. Google, Yahoo, Bing and other search engines are built to filter out and sort search results based on their assumed relevance to the original query, but they're not perfect. The top return may not be the most reliable one but rather the most-visited site or the result of a calculated attempt to manipulate a search engine by including keywords designed to artificially improve a site's prominence in search results. Students should always look at multiple pages to find the best, most reliable info.

Example: Search for "drug trafficking" on Google, and the top result is a Wikipedia article on the subject. Just below it, however, is a study on the topic by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, an official -- and presumably more reliable -- source.

8 Learn how to search. To help eliminate some of the steps in sorting the good results from the bad, learning to use a search engine's more advanced settings is important. Locate and explore the filters in your search engine of choice to help refine results on the front end based on criteria such as creation date and region, reading level, previously visited pages and specific types of media (images, videos, news, etc.). For younger users, it may be useful to try search engines such as Ask.com or WolframAlpha.com, which allow queries to be entered as a question instead of as individual keywords.

Example: Users can keep up to date on the developing situation in Syria by searching for the country's name in Google's "news" section or by using a "creation date" filter to limit results to only those sites that have been updated within the last day, week or month.

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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