The freedom of the internet to publish pretty much anything has had its blessings for the democratization of information. The downside: There is plenty of misinformation, half-truths, slanted articles, and plenty of embellishing out there. Sources of information are often sketchy at best and quite often prejudicial. The content on many websites, like television and radio before, is often slanted towards selling ads or other goals.
Truth, half-truth, false information, or flat-out lie
So, what is anyone to do if they want to actually do research and get factual information? Well, more often than not, it is often a process of elimination and cross-checking that can help you gain access to the truth. In other words, the truth will set you free, but it isn’t often easy to do online.
A couple things for you to consider: Websites like Wikipedia are written by viewers themselves who submit information. A publically submitted information database isn’t always bad, but it’s not entirely accurate either. Citing Wikipedia in any research is pretty laughable among hard core intellectuals. Also, blogs that come off as opinion or slanted should not be used for factual oriented citations either.
For example, lets say your going after peer-reviewed content, prior to actually publishing something or submitting something to someone. Business, medical, law, and policy journals are often peer-reviewed, which doesn’t necessarily make them completely accurate, but they have gone through some level of scrutiny before being published. And “scrutiny” is the keyword here. As a researcher, basic questions should always be in the forefront of your mind:
Who is the author? Is the author a well-known expert in the field? Does he have a degree in what he is writing about? And what are his motives for writing the article or book? He may be personally profiting from his research, which isn’t always a negative, but he or she needs to tell readers this.
What kind of website source is it? Is it an educational website from a leading university? Is it a reputable magazine? Is it a reputable source that may also have a written quarterly, monthly, or daily publication?
Does the research cite other sources? Reputable research also cites a number of other reputable sources as well. The process of adding to the intellectual data pool by adding further sources to strengthen arguments is essential.
Is the piece an opinion or news or unbiased piece of work? Often you can tell right away what kind of content you are reading. If the piece of information you are using is opinion driven, then chances are that even if factual data is used it is still not the best piece of data to base your research on.
There are plenty of quick and dirty informational sites online that appear factual and unbiased, but they often don’t tell the “whole story.” Sites like ehow.com or about.com might simply be a “teaser” of information that entices you to click on ads a bit further. With websites like this, you don’t want to use these as the basis of your research.
If you are having trouble access enough good information, you might have to go “old school” and visit your local public library. Published educational books and periodicals may be available in the area of your research and should be quoted. In addition, some local universities and colleges may allow you to have access to their information-rich database that isn’t accessible to the public - though you may have to pay small one-time fee. This is worth it though, considering you would have access to thousands of various researched documents that can help you generate the kind of information you want, and likely provide you with a number of reputable sources that you can cite.
The power and reach of information on the internet can certainly help you, but just remember to scrutinize each piece of data before putting your name behind it.