searching the interwebs

Assessing the information you find online

This is one of those burning issues for researchers in the age of Google.  Is all information equal?  Can everything you read and find be used as evidence for the arguments you make in your research.  There are some very comprehensive debates about this topic and have included some of the interesting ones at the bottom of this entry.

There is a vibrant debate about the use of analogue resources (books, journals etc) and digital resources.  There is also a lot of interesting discussions around the amount of information that is out there residing on websites, archives and databases (what Tara Brabazon calls ‘digital obesity’).

A few of you have talked on your blogs about working through mountains of information as you try and research your topic.  There are a few important things that can help you navigate that mountain of virtual pages.

1.    Search terms
The first thing to consider is the words you are using to search databases, google or google scholar.  The search terms you use filter the billions of pages to the most relevant hits are important in finding the most relevant articles and information.  Think about the central concept of your topic.  Think about the variables or keywords in your topic as you begin to search.  Think of other words you may use to describe your keywords (they may not be the word you choose to use).

For example

What are the impacts of the upcoming general election for arts funding in 2010/2011?

Central concept: arts funding; UK, general election
Keywords: conservative policy on arts, labor policy on arts, liberal Democrats policy on arts, budget 2010/2011, current arts funding UK
Other words: policy, arts council, UK general election, grants, dance funding, visual arts funding, arts management funding

As you search these terms, you might find a variety of new resources, or you might start finding the same articles over and over.

An aside: not everything on Google scholar is free.  It indexes both free and corporate databases.  Before spending any of your hard earned cash, check in the Athens system if Middlesex University ahs access to the journal or book you have found on Google.  You can then print or save the article for use whenever you need it.

2.    Evaluating the information you do find

Information is not equal (although the access to it should be!).  You have to develop a system or process by which you can evaluate any information you find.  There are hundreds of lists or frameworks online that you can use to filter and evaluate the information you need for your research.  Why is this important?  You want to build your research on information that you can rely on, that you believe, that has been collected and analysed in a way that is reliable and valid, and is relevant to your particular topic or industry.

Some considerations…

Who authored the information?  What knowledge or position do they hold?  Would you believe an article about dance warm up written by me?  I am not a dancer, nor do I have any expertise in warm up techniques…however, if I pointed you to an article about work based learning, that would be a different case?

Did it go through an editing process?  Most journals and books have been edited and fact checked.  In some cases they have been reviewed by more than one person.

Does the work have any evidence?  Does it quote other writers or evidence from government reports or enquiries?  What sort of research have they conducted?  Or is it just one person’s opinions.  These question impact on the way you use the information

Where is paper/book/article stored?  Does it come from a university website?  A professional publisher such as Sage, or JSTOR?
How recent is the article? Has there been something that has come out since that re-explores the issue?

Who funded the research?  You might find some research that says that the London theatre industry is the best in the world.  Woot!  But then you may find out it was the London Theatre Industry INC that funded it.  It’s a bit like polls on television.  In the US, Fox News represents a very conservative view of the world and they are open about it.  Today they conducted a poll about whether their viewers supported the recent changes to the Health Care system, 91% said they didn’t.  Is that information you could rely on? Does it take the pulse of the American people?

Who is the audience for this research?  Knowing who it is written for gives you a good idea of the circumstances in which the research occurred.  If the research was written for the government, it is usually designed to support and change government policy.  You need to take that into account when evaluating the information

Bias.  Do you feel the work is biased? Does the person writing it have a vested interest in pushing a certain point of view? Is research that comes out of Pepsi that says soft drink consumption increases brain power trustworthy?

Does it ignore or recognise the key theorists?  This is one of the hardest things to do if you don’t know the key theorists in a field.  This is where you need to use your investigative skills and try and identify who are the big thinkers in a field.  In work based learning, we cite Kolb and Schön a lot.  Why? Because they are kind of the first generation thinkers on whom we have based our discipline.  However, we also use them as a way of supporting or challenging our new thoughts about the discipline.   A simple (but not foolproof) way to help this process is to look on google scholar as your search and see how many times the article has been cited by other writers.  Both Kolb and Schön are cited over 14000 times for their key works.

Kathy Schrock talks a lot about the 5 W’s when evaluating information.

The Five W’s As with any investigative reporting, students can easily apply the five W ’s to simply evaluate a Web site: W h o wrote the pages and are they an expert in the field? What does the author say is the purpose of the site? When was the site created, updated, last worked on? Where does the information come from? Why is the information useful?

In summary, it is really important not to confuse quantity with quality.  You need to make sure that the information you use actually supports what you are trying to say.  This needs to be in a deep way.  So, use more than one source of information, find 2 or 3 papers that say the same thing, that support or argue against your position.  Finding 20 government reports that say the same thing is a bit of waste of time.  Finding a government report, an article and a case study that are relevant shows you have approached your topic in a rigorous way.

You might also look to organising your information in a systematic way so that you never loose references and they are formatted in the way we specify as a university.  See my post on citation managers here

A basic guide to searching online

Some searching tips and tricks

A nice little piece done by the dorkiest librarian ever, but useful ?

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