One of the great things about writing papers right now is how easy it is to type in your topic in a search engine and voila! Information, right at your fingertips! I love how quickly I can grab information on the go, just using my smart phone. But the tricky thing about all the information that’s available is sorting through the reliable sources and the not-so-reliable sources.
This is made even more difficult when you take into account something professors like Siva Vaidhyanathan calls Googlization, and writers like Eli Pariser call the Filter Bubble: helpful personalization of your search algorithm by your search engine ends up feeding you a search bias—your search results are more likely to show you information that supports your own ideas than contradicts them, which can be truly hazardous for a research paper. Here are some tips you need to know on sorting the good sources from the bad.
I use Wikipedia as much as the next person to grab some fast information when I’m on the go. But despite being a helpful quick resource, Wikipedia is contributed to by a number of users who can act on their own authority — which doesn’t cut it for research papers.
One of the things you need to know about reliable internet sources is the author of the page. While you can check that in Wikipedia, you can’t always get the writer’s qualifications. But it can be worse on non-Wikipedia pages, where the writer of an article isn’t identified at all. One of the first tips? Check the author or sponsor of the page. Find out who they are, whether they’re actually a qualified expert, and what their bias might be.
Non Internet sources
To be fair, the Internet isn’t the only place that may publish non-reliable information. I remember loving to look at the tabloids featuring Bat Boy and his ilk in the grocery store as a kid. Now the headlines tend to be less sensational and more celebrity oriented, but they’re still gossip rags, and probably aren’t trustworthy. For reliable print sources:
- Find out when and where the research was published. Magazines and newspapers, both online and in print, like to quote studies without often giving proper context—they’ll provide the most sensationalist bit of information so that people will read their articles. Track back to the original research study when you can, and make sure it came from a peer-reviewed journal.
- Does new information fit with the previous body of research? If not, more studies usually need to be done. Outlier studies are interesting, but show where more data needs to be determined, rather than undermining years of previous studies all at one go.
- Check who funded the study. Again, the tobacco example is a good one: there’s an inherent bias in the information they want promoted.
The filter bubble
Vaidhyanathan, in “The Dangers Posed by Big Data Are Real. So Is the Defense Inherent in Liberal Arts Study,” for Boston College Magazine, noted that when we run an Internet search, we’re not doing it independently: we’re trusting experts, such as the people who work at Google, to filter our information. “Google’s algorithms end up favoring the outrageous statement,” he noted, pointing out that popularity is a huge factor in relevance. This ties into the idea of the filter bubble, the idea that through personalization, you see the links most relevant to you—which prevents you from seeing links that aren’t “relevant.” To avoid this, try searching from library computers, or having friends across the country search and send you their top results. See what they come up with and design your own search bias alternatives to getting trapped in an Internet echo chamber.