You want to create an Entry for the Edited Guide, write an insightful blog, or produce a paper for your prof. You have a bang-on idea that will rock 'em in the aisles from Helsinki to Perth. It's a subject you're passionate about. You've got a great angle on the material. You have the writing chops. But you need Information with a capital I. Where to go for the source of all those blue lines?
Unless you're in possession of a mansion complete with a 5,000-volume archive, or have privileges at one of the major universities, or live next door to the British Library, you're probably going to be using the internet. The internet: a cornucopia of information, the mother lode of knowledge. Alternatively, the internet: a teeming jungle of hoax, propaganda, and sheer wrong data, foisted upon the unwary by the gullible and/or the mendacious. Learning to distinguish the friendly, accurate website from the hostile, misleading predator is one of the most important tools for survival in this wilderness of words.
This Entry will tell you how. Grab your pith helmet and join the trek. Bearer! (Elephant guns optional.)
What makes a source reliable? For one thing, the fact that its content producers get paid – paid to research, paid to fact-check, paid to turn out accurate material. Some of them are even civil servants1. Another factor is the question of oversight – whether a site's content is checked by officials, auditors, or some monitoring agency . A site which is answerable to others (often, rather painfully, called 'stakeholders') is more likely to be accurate than one whose standard for content runs along the lines of 'well, Uncle Joe said…' A third aspect is bias (of which more later) – a website run along library lines is less likely to have an agenda than one which is trying to get contributions in order to bring down the local government. Which is not to say that commercialism is always a bad thing, but on the whole, sites which are supported by foundations or even governments often have the resources to be really thorough.
When looking for facts, a good way to get basic starter information (and figures) may be to begin with the familiar standards.
The following is a list (by no means exhaustive) of some reliable websites. These are all websites that do not charge fees or require registration. You do not have to pay a cent, euro, or drachma for the information, and they don't collect any information from you (other than noting your presence for statistical purposes).
- USGS – United States Geological Survey
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- National Geographic
- CIA World Factbook2
- The Library of Congress (US)
- The British Library
- The Royal Horticultural Society
- The National Archives and Records Office (US)
- Directgov, the British government public services site
- Ordnance Survey Election Maps (UK)
One useful feature of many of these sites is the box that says 'Ask a Librarian'. Believe it or not, you may have the pleasure of contacting a real librarian and asking for search help. This is particularly satisfying if the organisation in question is not in your country. Somebody else's taxes are paying for the service.
No, not the system h2g2 uses to vet its entries. When it comes to topics that are of scientific or academic interest, a peer-reviewed journal – one whose articles have been read and commented on by acknowledged experts in the field – is obviously a good source for reliable, state-of-the-art-or-science information. It won't mean that everything is true, but it should mean that as of this moment, nobody worth their salt knows any better.
The problem with a lot of peer-reviewed journals is that they are expensive. Expensive to the extent of charging subscription prices only a research library can pay. However, with the advent of online information, some of these journals are now available gratis.
For those doing research on medical topics, there is:
Those doing other types of research may find peer-reviewed material much harder to obtain: JSTOR, the excellent source for academic journals, is only obtainable through a library or educational institution subscription. Lobby your local authority.
Some of our most-used information sources should be taken cum grano salis (which is Latin for 'with a grain of salt'). This is not to say we shouldn't use them – where would we be without them? – but we should always double-check the information before claiming that it is definitive. Some of these sites, in fact, are definitively inaccurate, meaning that they will become the source of a whisper-down-the-lane rumour that is hard to shake.
- The BBC – This is not to pick on everybody's favourite news portal. It is merely to point out an obvious fact: what is gained in rapid newsgathering can be lost in accuracy. Also, known facts may change during the next news cycle. Double-check, and watch for updates.
- Wikipedia – Wikipedia is an excellent place to begin a web search. Head for the footnotes. But know this: ANYONE can write a Wikipedia article. Anyone can update. The information may not be accurate. This is true for any website with user-generated content. A ugc (user-generated content) site's information should always be double-checked.
- Any person's personal website or blog – Most of these just express opinions or personal experiences. The writers are entitled to them, but these do not constitute facts.
You've just received an email from a Nigerian potentate. Your favourite news source insists that Winston Churchill was a closet communist and UFO nut. You've been informed by 'scientists' that they have located a 500-pound spider on an island recently claimed under the US Guano Islands Act – the Air Force is on the way with F-somethings and tactical nukes. What's a Researcher to do?
Bookmark these links. Let your fingers do the running – not walking – in the direction of these excellent professional debunkers:
- Snopes – Researcher/myth debunker Barbara 'Place Nickname Here' Mikkelson is Da Bomb. She also offers insightful deconstructions. To read her work is to learn much about folklore and the ubiquitous urban legend.
- The Straight Dope – Their motto is 'Fighting Ignorance since 1973 (It's taking longer than we thought)'. That pretty much sums up this site, which is a witty and informative guide to hoaxes and misinformation of all kinds.
These excellent sites will help you sort the wheat from the chaff. While it is generally true that 'if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is', not everything that is counterintuitive is inaccurate. What looks like tinfoil may be galvanised aluminium. For example, there are no known 500-pound spiders. The Guano Islands Act of 1856, however hilarious, is pure pukka. Check for yourself to sort out the Churchill reference.
Can You Count to Three?
Sorting your sources is as easy as one-two-three.
- Primary sources – Primary sources are original materials. They are from the time period involved and have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation. Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based. They are usually the first formal appearance of results in physical, print or electronic format. They present original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information. These include artefacts, diaries, letters, autobiographies, public records, photographs, works of art, patents, and minutes and proceedings of organisations. Project Gutenberg is a good source of copyright-free older original print sources now available in various electronic formats.
- Secondary sources – Secondary sources are accounts written after the initial primary sources appear. They can analyse, evaluate, comment on, critique, or make primary sources known to a wider audience. They include bibliographies, commentaries, newspapers, biographies, catalogues, dictionaries, text books and books written for laymen and practitioners of professions.
- Tertiary sources – These are collections of primary and secondary sources. These can take the form of almanacs, encyclopaedias, electronic databases, abstracting and indexing reference books, fact books, manuals, guide books, hand books, and text books. These are mostly the print sources you find in reference sections of libraries.
The User's Guide to Cross-Checking
It is all very well to say 'double-check' your facts, but how do you do this?
Scenario: You've just looked up the famous (!) quote: 'To dance is to give oneself up to the rhythms of life'. The first page of your browser is full of references to this famous quote by Maya V Patel.
- Check how many of these sites are 'famous quote' sites. These sites are infamous for robbing one another's nests by copy-and-paste. They employ underpaid staff to do this all day.
- Look at the other sources. Check for telltale signs of copy-and-paste, such as the same misspelled word, exact duplication of wording, or an unusual phrase that is repeated.
- Look up something else: Since the quote sites all attribute this quote to Maya V Patel, look up Maya V Patel. Ignore the Facebook and professional entries. You may find a link to some interesting speculations about Maya V Patel, mysterious author of quotations.
See? It's not easy, and it takes time, but sometimes the truth comes out. If it doesn't, try asking in an experts' forum. Or go back to 'Ask a Librarian'.
What Not to Do, or, Digging Up the Führer – A Case Study
In 1983, the German news magazine Stern brought out excerpts from the previously unknown diaries of Adolf Hitler. These diaries, all 62 handwritten volumes of them, had been discovered by a German art dealer, Herr Konrad Kujau. There was much excitement in the academic community. No less an authority than British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (later Lord Dacre) had examined the find and pronounced it genuine.
It was a shame about the postwar ink. It really was.
Excerpts from the Hitler Diaries, say in Stern, could be considered primary sources – although bogus ones. A journal article about the hoax would be a secondary source. A list of articles about the Hitler Diary Hoax would be a tertiary source. This first-person account of the scandal by a writer for the Daily Telegraph is also a primary source.
In hindsight, perhaps Stern and Trevor-Roper should have considered the usual reputation of art dealers.
To 'deconstruct' an item in the media, be it a film, an advertisement, or a news item, means to examine it carefully in order to lessen its ability to blindside you with misinformation or propaganda. Able deconstructors usually rely on a checklist of questions. Here we offer a checklist for deconstruction of your web sources3:
- Is it a primary source?
- Is it likely to be politically or commercially biased?
- Is it from a credible third party?
- Has it been audited?
- Is it the result of academic research?
- Where was it published?
- Is it the result of a press release?
- Is it opinion / analysis / commentary? If so, how authoritative is the author?
If a Beijing newspaper employee had asked themselves these questions in 2002, they might not have published a story alleging that the US Congress was planning to leave Washington, DC – unless it got a retractable dome for the Capitol building. That story originally ran in The Onion, a notorious satire site4.
And Now for Your Practice Drill
- Does the fact that this site's layout and artwork look professional impress you?
- Does the use of 'scientific' terms like 'clinical treatment', 'bacteria', and 'gene vectors', make you think it's the goods?
- Click on a few tabs. How does the idea of creating 'your own genetically healthy child online' appeal to you? Does this seem possible? How about male pregnancy? (Ouch.)
- Follow the links. Some of these look genuine, but others have rather interesting pictures. How can you tell if it's real?
- Still not sure? Try our friend snopes.com by googling 'male pregnancy snopes'. You'll get the whole story, plus some fun movie reviews.
For Extra Credit
Research the Pacific Tree Octopus.
You must do this on your own. Remember to use your deconstruction questions.
See? Deconstructing can be fun. Ask any toddler.
For Further Reading (Good Sources, Honest)
- Evaluating humanities, educational and social science information sources.
- Cornell Libraries' advice to researchers with regard to web evaluation.
How Do You Know This Entry Isn't a Hoax?
As this Entry is about the reliability of information, a word about its authors:
Elektragheorgheni has a Master of Library Science degree. She has worked with pre-internet information transfer for a company using NASA spinoff technology, as well as working as a research librarian for a pharmaceutical college, a pharmaceutical company, and a dot-com.
Dmitri Gheorgheni is a freelance educational writer with a background in language teaching who has also worked as a producer of tertiary source material by translating and indexing for a major academic database.