Tips and Suggestions for Internet Researchers

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Here are a few things to keep in mind while conducting research using the Internet:

1.  The Internet is NOT like a library.

     Libraries are more than just buildings. They are places where information is organized for easy retrieval using a set of internationally agreed upon standards and an established set of rules for retrieval.  In addition, the library is staffed by a group of highly trained professional information retrieval specialists - librarians - who have degrees in the study of information science and many years experience in helping students with their research projects and strong personal commitments to service.

     The Internet is pretty much the opposite: unorganized, anarchic, and chaotic.  It is definitely not user friendly and lacks any degree of standardization.  This is part of its strength as an information dissemination tool, and its greatest weakness as an information retrieval tool.  Stated simply: it's hard to find what you need and there's no one out there to help.  There are tools and resources available on the Internet to help you find information, but be warned: It's not always easy to use the Internet for serious research and it can be very frustrating.

     However, remember one thing: the librarians at the Wayne State College Library will do all they can to help you in your quest for information on the Internet.  Just talk to a librarian or reference assistant at the Conn Library Information Desk or email WSC electronic librarian Dave Graber with your questions.

2.  The Internet is most useful as a supplementary research tool.

     No matter what your research project, don't restrict your search only to material and resources available over the Internet.  The net is simply one more information retrieval tool.  It is not the only one and it is usually not the most efficient or effective one.  Libraries, colleagues, professional associations, government agencies, your professors, and other resources all should play a part in a truly effective research process.

3.  Take what you find on the Internet with a large grain of salt!

     Anyone with access to an Internet server can put pretty much whatever information they like on the net.  What assurance do you have that all the information you find is current, correct, or at all reliable?  Unfortunately, none.

     Other resources tend to be much more reliable and authoritative.  For example, librarians perform formal collection development to insure the quality of materials that they bring into the library.  Articles published in scholarly journals undergo a rigorous process of peer review to insure the quality of published research.  Publishers have reputations for integrity in producing materials that are useful and trustworthy.  While not every book in a library or every article in a journal is always absolutely trustworthy, you can at least be sure that unbiased minds have checked on the information source before making it available.  No such assurance lies behind information on the Net.

     This can be a good thing.  Censorship is very difficult.  Information disseminates freely and quickly.  On the other hand, watch out!  Try to find a traditional print resource that backs up information you find on the net.  This is particularly important if the information contradicts what you've found in other places.
     Ask yourself such questions as:

          What server did you find the information on?
          Who wrote or put the information on the server?
          What are the credentials of the author or Web manager?
          Does the author provide any sources for the information in the document?
          Could there be a hidden agenda behind this information source?

     These are the kinds of critical questions you should always ask of any information source.  They are particularly important when dealing with material taken from the Internet.

4.  The Internet is like a black hole!

     Things tend to disappear with no warning on the net.  A general rule is: the more useful you find a site, the more likely it is to vanish without trace!  There may be many reasons for this.  A change in service provider means a site's address (or URL) will change.  Or perhaps the individual or group sponsoring the site no longer has the time or money to maintain it.  Maybe the company has gone under or decided to start charging for access to its services. There may be any number of reasons.  The point is, don't get too attached to any one information source because it may not always be there.

5.  Be patient!

     The Internet is a big, big place.  It's global, in fact, and sometimes finding the exact piece of information you need is either impossible or involves sorting through a lot of the garbage that's out there.  Using such resources as Yahoo! or HotBot may help.  But just as with any other aspect of research, it's often hard and time-consuming work.  Don't use the net instead of other resources because you expect it to be a short cut.  You might be unpleasantly surprised!

6.  Useful information is not always free information!

     To anyone who has spent a lot of time "surfing" the net, this is obvious.  A lot of the information on the Internet is useless to the serious researcher.  Many organizations (companies, universities, etc.) use the Internet as a public relations tool or an advertising medium.  The commercialization of the Internet is a fact. Once the preserve of academics and government, the net is increasingly a medium for doing business.  There's nothing wrong with this, of course, and many free and highly useful databases are made available by private companies.  But many web sites are designed to sell you a product or entice you into subscribing to a service.  Again, there's nothing wrong with this, just be prepared for it.  And remember, the library may offer the same or similar services without a charge!

This document was adapted, with permission, by Dave Graber of WSC, from McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa.