Saturday, August 8, 2009

Researching an Article: Dig a Little Deeper

No matter how many times I use it, I'm still in awe at the ease of doing research on the Internet. At the same time, the phrase "dig a little deeper" has taken on a new more literal meaning in addition to the figurative one.

Every time I look up a statistic to back up a point in an article or a fact that will add realism to a piece of fiction, like the day of the week Christmas fell on in 1875, I think how, just a few years ago, I'd have to visit libraries and archives, and possibly weed through nausea inducing microfiche. That hands-on experience can still be fun when researching a scholarly paper or a novel, but for a blog post or a short story, it is so much more efficient having the information just a click away. And the search keeps getting easier. No longer do we need to leave out articles and add + or - between words. Looking for a study to quote for a post on my new healthcare reform blog (shameless plug inserted), I typed in "statistics on uninsured by age" and found a wealth of listings apropos to the subject.

However, that embarrassment of riches can also be a problem as the arcane workings of SEO often cause articles about articles quoting statistics to rise to the top while the actual study or poll they are quoting shows up somewhere on page 3. Unfortunately, in doing research, many don't bother to dig down that far.

There are many reasons we often stop short of the original source when researching. Aside from sheer laziness––which can account for a good bit of it––less savvy researches can mistake top billing in search engines for a badge of authority––like Wikipedia, the site I love to hate. It is also very tempting to pick an article that supports the point of view we are espousing with our own article and rely on their citation of the "facts." Of course, those writers may be quoting the parts of the study that support their view and ignoring significant information from that same study or poll that either doesn't support them or isn't quite so sensational. Secondary and tertiary sources may also slant information. Notice how the same statistics with different modifyers can make contrasting points.

"As many as 1 in 5 abortions is performed on unwed mothers."

"Only 1 in 5 abortions is performed on unwed mothers."

(Note:These are totally fabricated statistics I made up just as an example.)

With information literally at our fingertips these days, one can hardly complain about having to sift through one or two pages of listings or perusing a few short articles, many of which could be eliminated from the first line. There's a lot of misinformation and distorted facts out there, both in blogs and forums and even in the mainstream media, but why join the crowd, when it is so easy to just dig a little deeper.

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