Ask the Editor™
Volume 6, Issue 3

In this issue:

Researching on the Web

It goes without saying that the Internet is at once an amazing research tool and a thoroughly frustrating one.

Of course, before I complain too much, I need only remind myself that I once used card catalogs and thumbed through massive volumes of periodicals indexes to do research.

That said, the massive amount of information available on the Web can be too much of a good thing. I was recently researching shopping malls for a client. A search on Yahoo for “shopping mall” delivered 20 million results.

I also recently helped my seven-year-old son do research on whales for a school project. Yahoo search results approached 10 million.

Obviously, narrowing the search helps. Searching for “shopping mall economic outlook” narrows the search quite a bit, as does “beluga whale resources for kids.” And fortunately, search engines will display the most relevant matches at the top of the list.

But simply narrowing the search does little to ensure the information is accurate and relevant. Anyone with access to the Internet and the right software can publish on the Web.

To make your Web researching more efficient, check out the tips in the next section.

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“First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure.” Douglas Adams

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Web Researching Tips

  • Boolean searches are overkill for most searches; simply tell the search engine exactly what you’re looking for, for example, instead of entering Ty Cobb, try entering: Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average
  • Use the + symbol to make sure the search engine searches for Web pages with all the words, not just some of them, for example: +1955 +Ford +Thunderbird
  • Use the – symbol to find pages with one word in them but not another, which is helpful to focus a search by avoiding a related meaning, for example: bikers -motorcycle
  • Use quotation marks to search for an exact phrase, for example: “gardening tips”
  • Combine symbols, for example: “Star Wars” –“Revenge of the Sith”
  • The basic commands mentioned above are usually sufficient, but most search engines have power search capabilities; check for an advanced search link or read the help files
  • Major search engines also have search assistance features that may help you in your search, for example, showing related searches, clustering results from the same site, filtering explicit content, searching by language, customizing results to see more results per page, and sorting by date; check the help page for the search engine
Top Search Engines

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“We’ve heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true.” Robert Wilensky

Evaluating Web Information

  • To judge whether information is useful, consider its purpose. Is it for education or entertainment? Informational or promotional?
  • Government, education, non-profit, professional, business, association, and well-known journalistic sites are typically more reliable and accurate than private, home-grown sites
  • Institutional Web sites produced by established institutions such as universities, government agencies, museums, and non-profit organizations have a high degree of public accountability and are therefore usually accurate
  • Government sites are often an excellent source for primary documents and related resources
  • Corporate sites can be a good source of information; just keep in mind that the goal of the site is to sell, so information is usually posted for public relations and promotional gain
  • News and journalistic sites can be good sources for late-breaking events, but because of the ephemeral nature of news, may not always be accurate; check your facts against multiple sources
  • Compare a variety of sources against each other to verify accuracy of your facts
  • Try to find the original sources of information, if possible
  • If you need to cite the source, try to cite a printed version, if possible, as Web pages are constantly updated, moved, and deleted; print is more stable
  • Check the credentials of the author of the information. Is the author an expert in the field? Has he or she published work in authoritative, peer-reviewed print publications?
  • Find out about who is sponsoring the site where you found the information
  • If it is a publication, find out if it has an ISSN number; if not it is probably a less authoritative home-grown Web site
  • For other types of organizations, check to see if they have a postal address and phone number to determine if they are a credible source; check the organization’s mission and vision statements to see if they have a bias or special interest
  • Find out if the Web site has an external review process for the information it publishes, whether the site itself has been reviewed by an outside source, and whether the site has received any awards from a recognized entity
  • Check the date the material was last updated and try to find the most recent information

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“When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the Worldwide Web. Now even my cat has its own page.” Bill Clinton

Ask the Editor™ Question

When do you use “compose” and when do you use “comprise”?

Tim Donald

Comprise means to encompass or include. For example: “The football team comprises forty players.” You wouldn’t say, “Forty players comprise a football team.” Nor would you say, “The football team is comprised of forty players.” Compose means to put together, so you could say, “The football team is composed of forty players.”

“The Editor”

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