Research on the Web

RESEARCH ON THE WEB….The world is full of advice on how to do research. There’s general advice that applies to research of any kind. There’s particular advice for particular fields. There’s advice that applies to archival research and advice that applies to field research. There’s advice for novices and advice for graduate students.

But how about bloggers doing research on the web? Here are five pieces of advice for them. Enjoy.

  1. If you use Google (and who doesn’t?) don’t use the default page. Use the Advanced Search page instead:

    http://www.google.com/advanced_search

    Sure, the Advanced Search page is sort of a crutch for people who haven’t memorized Google’s set of Boolean operators. But that’s most of us, right? And since any advanced search you use is better than any advanced search you don’t, you’re better off with the crutch than with nothing. So bookmark the Advanced Search page and use it.

    While you’re at it, you should also free yourself from the tyranny of getting only ten results per page. The best hits aren’t always in the top ten, and you’re more likely to see them if you just have to scroll down a single page rather than going back and forth between different result pages. So go to http://www.google.com/preferences and set your default to 50 results per page.

  2. Whenever you read something by someone you don’t know, Google ’em. Find out what axe they have to grind. Are they liberal or conservative? Do they work for a think tank? Do they have a history of being obsessed by weird stuff? What expertise do they have? The web allows you to root out this stuff in less than a minute or two for most people. Take advantage of it.

  3. If you’re writing about a specific topic that you’re not that familiar with, take a minute and find an article that provides a quick outline of the general subject area. Even a modest 60-second familiarity with the lay of the land can save you a lot of grief and keep you from making an idiot of yourself.

  4. Speaking of which, use Wikipedia. No, it’s not 100% reliable. And given the nature of the internet community, it’s better on some topics than others. You’re more likely to get a useful description of the binomial theorem than you are of the objective correlative in Heart of Darkness.

    But all reference works have limitations, and virtually all popular references should be taken as starting points, not final authorities. And that’s how you should use Wikipedia: as a starting point. The scope of Wikipedia is vast; it’s extremely useful for recent events; it frequently does a decent job of summarizing a topic; and most articles come with a lot of highly useful links. Sure, you have to be careful with Wikipedia, but you should always be careful anyway.

  5. And while we’re on the subject, always click the link. The web makes checking sources so easy that there’s no excuse for failing to at least skim the primary links in an article. Click, click, click!