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Sunday
Jan022011

10 attributes of professional writers -- #7: Research properly

Can there be any excuse, in this day and age, for poorly-researched material? There are books, the internet and still, even in these straitened times, public libraries with reference sections.

But what is proper research, especially on the internet?

I was pleased to discover, in a completely unscientific piece of research I carried out in an internet forum for writers (Litopia), that nobody uses Wikipedia on its own for serious research. (Wikipedia, in case you didn’t know, is written by anyone who wishes to contribute or edit an entry.)

Searching for good and correct information takes timeThat’s sensible, given the nature of Wikipedia – but it’s also a sensible course of action regardless of the source you’re using. It’s important to find corroborating  evidence, and you can really only do this by checking at least three sources of information. This approach is often referred to as “triangulation”.

Unfortunately, because it is so easy for anyone these days to set up a web page or blog, and give the impression they are an expert, you should go even further in your “due diligence”.

But the good news is that there are steps you can take to ensure that your research is as accurate as possible.

5 courses of action to take

Use more than one search engine

Although everyone seems to use Google as their first port of call (including me), it’s not the only game in town. Check out some of the others in this occasional series, Research sites for writers. Different search engines use different ways of indexing web pages, so you can often find something in one search engine that didn’t seem to appear in another.

Use the backlinks feature

Some search engines, like Google, has a feature which enables you to see which websites are linking to the one in question. The idea is that if you have found a site on, say, archaeology, and you discover that other sites on the subject link to it, that should give you more confidence in its veracity.

To do this, look in the advanced features section. In Google, you can enter this in the browser address bar: link:www.thewebsite.com. That will give you a list of the sites which link to it.

Look at who the site cites

This is the converse of the above. Look at the references given on the website, or in blog articles, or a links page, or a blogroll (list of blogs which the blogger reads, usually down one side of the front page of their blog). If a site about archaeology links to other sites about archaeology, it’s probably OK.

Use a social bookmark service

Social bookmarking is like the bookmarking you can do on your computer, by which you can bookmark  a website you’d like to return to, excwpt that the link is stored on the internet rather than only your own machine. That has the advantage that you will be able to access your bookmarks from any computer with internet access. It also means that other people can see your bookmarks – and you can see theirs.

So, for example, you can see which websites about archaeology other people think are worth linking to. Decent services are Diigo and Delicious – although a question mark is hanging over the future of the latter. Another one I use, though I haven’t done so for a while, is Connotea, which was designed for the academic community. There’s also a pretty comprehensive list of social bookmarking services here.

Check out the suffix

Take a look at the ending of the website. This is not a hard and fast rule, but a website ending in “.com” may be commercial, and therefore have a particular axe to grind. A site ending with “.gov” may have a different sort of axe to grind. There’s a list of domain name suffixes (as they’re called) here. It’s slightly USA-biased, but it’s not bad.

Conclusion

While it’s true that you can’t trust everything you read on the internet, the same is true of any other medium. Fortunately, if anything it’s much easier, in many respects, to take steps to protect yourself, and do proper research, on the internet than anywhere else.

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