The Mixed Blessing of Online Research

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A recent report about the pluses and perils of online searching by students has lessons for all writers, regardless of age, who use the Internet for research.

A survey found that though most schoolteachers believe that digital search technology is beneficial, it also encourages more superficial searching, and that conundrum applies to the populace in general and to writers in particular.

Writers, like students, are more self-reliant than ever about obtaining information. Although reference librarians are still available to help them search for publications or other resources, and online portals to research materials abound, writers are likely to seek out the documents and other media themselves using computers and other digital devices rather than resorting to a visit to the library. Meanwhile, larger publications that once employed their own reference staff, realizing that workers can easily do research on their own, have long since eliminated such positions.

The result is that many digital explorers seek out information randomly, often relying on the first return for a search result rather than the best, or at best one or more selections among several high-ranking responses that may not be the most authoritative.

Just as students frequently no longer engage in satisfying their intellectual curiosity, opting instead for a quick fix, writers seeking source material to develop an article or an essay or a report, or a fiction or nonfiction book, are likely to miss out on nuances or fail to realize that a resource they’re relying on is of questionable validity or is controversial. For students and writers alike, the faster pace of their daily responsibilities, the increased pressure to produce, and heavier workloads exacerbate the problem.

So, as with any endeavor that suddenly seems easier than it used to, writers seeking information online must do so with caution, lest they become overconfident or otherwise careless. Here are seven tips for conducting online research:

1. Become familiar with established authoritative online sources pertinent to your profession or area of interest.
2. Research alternatives to Google that may be more specific to your needs.
3. Brainstorm and use multiple keywords to conduct a thorough search.
4. Bookmark and/or record helpful portals and sites.
5. Use Wikipedia, but only as a portal to other resources.
6. Be alert for subjective content, conflicts of interest, and propaganda when you’re seeking impartial information.
7. Be skeptical about poll and survey results and reader reviews.

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1 thought on “The Mixed Blessing of Online Research”

  1. Good Morning, Mr. Nichol:

    Do you have a source/citation for your reference in your first sentence to a “recent report”? I would like to share your article with my colleagues and students. But I know I will be taken to task if I am not able to provide the study. Thank you.

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