Okay, folks! Buckle in and get a whopping serving of Research How-To from our guest ACADEMIC LIBRARIAN: Stewart C Baker!
Google-Fu: Internet Research, Librarian-style
As an academic librarian, research is something that’s near to my heart. One of my favorite things to do is dig up obscure articles and books on a topic and delve into them, compare them to one another, and arrive at a description that’s as close to accurate as I can make it.
So it may be a bit surprising to learn that the first place I often turn to when I’m starting my research is Google. As a librarian, I probably search a little differently than most people do, but all the same it’s true.
The Internet sources Google (and/or your search engine of choice) trawls contain a wealth of information. Unfortunately, they (and any other kind of source, to be honest) also contain the potential to supply a wealth of misinformation. Knowing how to find research materials are just part of the battle, in other words—you also have to learn how to read between the lines and determine what’s likely to be accurate and what’s likely to be questionable.
With that in mind, here are a few tips that can help you find and assess information on the World Wide Web (and beyond):
1. Learn to Search More Efficiently
In my experience, the way most people search the web is through “natural language” questions like “How can I feed my cat toast?”
A more efficient way to search is to just pull the keywords out and drop the rest. In this case: feed cat toast
Boolean searching (AND, OR, and NOT) can also make a big difference in results. In most search engines, “and” is implied, so you don’t need to add that. Other types of search operators, though, can be added to most search engines, although how you do it may vary. Google has a handy cheat sheet of search operators you can use, such as – before a word for “not” or putting OR between two words to find one or the other.
So if I wanted to find out how to feed a cat toast or buns, but NOT hamburger buns, my search might look like this:
Feed cat (toast OR buns) -hamburger
Memorizing operators isn’t usually necessary, because Google has an advanced search option that will parse it for you (and presumably other search engines do, too).
Disturbingly, this search gets me 860,000 results, including one titled “Vegemite for cats.” The more you know, I guess. . .
2. Search by Domain
Another useful trick is to limit your search by top-level domain (e.g. .edu, .gov) or by website.
Searching just academic websites can often get you more reliable information when it comes to scientific or historical research, although there are of course reliable websites outside academia as well.
On Google, you can add a domain to your search by typing site: and the domain at the end, or you can use the advanced search to pre-filter.
If I take our feeding cats toast search and limit it to .edu domains (educational institutions in the USA), this narrows results to 34,600. (Why, people, why?!)
It’s worth noting that domains vary by country. Searching .edu websites will not get you UK university (.ac.uk) or Australian ones, etc.
Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of top-level domains, if you want to find a specific kind of website.
3. Search by Date
This is perhaps less useful for fantasy and historical fiction, but for science fiction in particular it can make a huge difference whether the source you’re citing is from 1995 or, say, last week.
How you will do this varies by search engine, but in Google it’s easiest to enter your search and then click Search Tools at the top:
Or, again, use the advanced search.
4. Assessing Results
Finding things, as I’ve mentioned above, is only half the battle. Once you have a page with information that looks good, you need to figure out whether it’s likely to be authoritative and accurate.
There’s no sure-fire way to do this, but here are things to look for:
- Authorship – Is it easy to tell who the author is?
- Reliability – How reliable is the author likely to be? (I.e. Are they an expert in their subject area? Do they have a history for being a pioneer in the field?)
- Recency – As above: how recent is this information? (particularly important in the sciences, but also in other fields)
- Relationship – Does the author have any conflicts of interest (relationships) that would lead them to misrepresent information? (e.g. A creationist providing a ‘non-biased’ summary of the theory of evolution; an Apple executive posting a review of an Android phone)
As a mnemonic, you can just remember: ARRR!
If you look at any source you find (Internet or print) with these in mind, you’ll be taking the next step that not many bother with: figuring out whether or not what you’ve just read is likely to be accurate.
5. Go Beyond the Googles
It’s worth realizing there are sources beyond Google. Here are some sites I like to use for more specialized research:
- Google Scholar – Okay, this one’s still Google. But it only searches academic stuff! You can often find free copies of articles by looking for “PDF” links on the side. Note that a lot of the links will require you to have an account or pay (ridiculous) amounts of money to access the full text of articles.
- org – A non-profit Internet library, with tons of Public Domain material including books, videos, and photos. Great for finding historic photos and primary source materials (i.e. those produced by people who actually experienced historical events).
- Project Gutenberg – Free public-domain ebooks. Another good source for historic, primary source materials, as well as old and out-of-print books.
- org – A database of Open Access (free to read) scientific papers on physics topics.
- Wikipedia’s list of academic databases and search engines – Other databases to find scholarly articles and papers (sort by “Access Cost” to bump the free ones to the top).
As for learning how to avoid research rabbit holes? I’ll let you know how to do that some other time. first, I just have to find this obscure middle-French manuscript that’s going to make the setting details in a short story I abandoned six years ago super accurate. . .
Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer, and occasional haikuist. His fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future, Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and currently resides in Oregon with his family—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet.