It’s on the Internet; It Must be True


These days, when you need information, one of the first things you probably do is search the Internet.  No matter what keywords or phrases you use to search, a flood of results is returned – some of which are exactly what you want, and some of which you wonder how on earth they got onto the list.   Suddenly, you’ve gone from not having enough information, to having way too much.  How do you drink from this fire hose, and find the needed, accurate information?  Here are some tips to help you sort the useful from the useless.

Source

Who published the information?  What group is paying to have this information made available?  Do they have an agenda, or a reason to post information that is not objective?  Who is their intended audience, and does that audience have any assumptions that might affect the interpretation? Is the site supported by advertisements, and if so, might the advertiser have had reason to slant the presentation one way or another?  Is the information freely available to everyone, or do you have to pay to access it?  If the latter, what sort of quality control does that fee buy you?

 

Author

Who is the author?  Did they provide their contact information?  With what institutions or organizations are they associated?  What is their reputation, and what credentials or expertise do they have on the subject?  Is it attributed to a specific individual, group, or is it anonymous? If it is anonymous, is there a reason the author might not want to be associated with it?

 

Peer-reviewed

Has the article or site been peer-reviewed by other experts in the field?  Does it contain references and links to quality supporting information? Do other sources reference this source?  Has it been carefully edited, or is it full of typographical errors and inconsistencies?   Are competing theories discussed, or ignored?

 

Timely

What is the date that the information was published, and when was it last updated? If the specific article is not dated, is there a date on the site? If the date is old, is the subject matter still relevant? Could there have been more recent developments, and if so, does the site lead you to them?  Are the links current and valid, or dated and broken?  Is the site reliable – if you go back a day or a week later, is the information still there?  Has anything been updated?

 

Verify

No matter how good you the source is, you always want to confirm your answer.  Does the author list their assumptions, and indicate what is fact, and what is opinion?  Does it make sense in light of what else you know about the subject?  Does it agree with other sources?  If they disagree, is the issue addressed?

 

A wise man once said “Sometimes good people (and content) end up in bad places.  That doesn’t make them bad.”  Now that a whole world of information is available at the click of a mouse, it’s crucial to be able to critically evaluate it, and separate the useful nuggets from the useless nut’s ramblings.

Get involved in the discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers)._—brought to you by ACS Careers.

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9 Responses to It’s on the Internet; It Must be True

  1. Deanna Morrow Hall says:

    The five criteria (Source; Author; Peer Reviewed; Timely; Verify) are good. However, there needs to be a sixth one: Comprehensiveness. Even though an Internet search regularly retrieves hundreds, thousands, or even millions of hits, the results represent the unsystematic postings of people currently living, or recently deceased. For the most part, there is no historical depth to the Internet.

    In contrast, the one source where all six of these criteria are met are the records in the Chemical Abstracts database. ACS needs to point to the Internet as a place to start one’s research, but needs to seriously promote the CA database as the place to end it. No search of the chemical literature can be considered complete in the absence of a CA search.

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