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Information found—and not found—on the Web

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The dream behind the creation of the Internet [is] the possibility of universal access in a digital age—where any author's work could be available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The experience of most people, however, is not that the Net contains great works and crucial research information. Instead most of what is there is perceived to be of low value.

The root of the problem is that authors and publishers cannot make a living giving away their work.

Mark Stefik in "Trusted Systems", Scientific American, vol. 276, no. 3, March 1997.

 

Info Search

Learning to Research in the Library

Information Found—and Not Found—on the Web

Learning to Research on the Web

Search Strategy: Getting a Broad Overview of a Subject

Skills for Online Searching

Search Strategy: Finding Specific Information

How does information get onto the Web anyway? Until 1994 or 1995, most of the information on the internet (which then migrated to the Web) was posted by scientists, educators, students and the government. Since then, commercial use of the Web has exploded and so has the posting of hobby pages or personal home pages.

Before you use Web sources in your research, you MUST evaluate those sources. Your goal is to make sure they contain reliable information from knowledgeable people. Ken Irwin of the University of Michigan Libraries has developed an interactive tutorial on how to identify good websites for research. He recommends asking yourself the following questions about each Web site you are considering using as a source in your report:

  • WHY was the Web site created?
  • What OPINION does the page represent?
  • WHEN was the page put up? Is it current?
  • WHO put up the Web site? Do they have good credentials?
  • How GOOD is the information?
  • How WELL DOCUMENTED is the work?

For more details on this important process, check out the rest of the tutorial at http://guides.lib.umich.edu/content.php?pid=30524. (Irwin 2002)

Scholarly or informative material which might be useful to a researcher gets posted on the Web in a number of ways.

A lot of information is posted by educators as part of their teaching or sharing information with colleagues. An educator or student with an interest in sharing information may write an article and post it as part of his or her personal web site. Generally, these are unpublished articles—if an article is going to be or has been published in a scholarly journal, the journal may own the copyright and the author can't post it without permission. College professors also post information that they're using for a class. Sometimes if they've authored a textbook, you can find chapters or portions of chapters on a class web site.

College students and, increasingly, high school students post information about projects they've done for classes. If part of the assignment was designing a Website for the information, the information and the site may be quite sophisticated and useful.

Since the Web became a hot advertising and public relations medium, many businesses have established sites to promote their company and its products. These commercial sites provide a lot of good information, because it helps interest people in visiting their site and keeps them coming back. For example, some of the investment companies which sell mutual funds have a lot of general investor-education materials available at their sites, including interactive calculators for computing your retirement needs or college savings needs. Some companies, like encyclopedia publishers for example, put free versions of their product online as a way of advertising their regular products to potential subscribers. Paying customers get more content and functionality, but there is still a lot of good information to be found for free.

More and more magazines and newspapers are providing excerpts from their current and past issues online, and some magazines provide additional content related to the current issue which isn't in the print version. (Clever—when you buy the print version and find out there's more at the Web site, you have to go there, and then you get zapped with the advertising banners!) Ok, there's a pattern here. The commercial sites will post information that they think will enhance their online or real world business, build their public relations goodwill, or will draw people to the Web site where they can either make money from advertising or deliver another sales pitch for a product. It's usually pretty interesting stuff, because it's meant to be, and some of it can be useful to a researcher.

There's also a growing list of free e-zines and e-journals, which are published only online, and many of these have excellent information for research.

The government posts a large volume of information, some statistical, some educational or informative. One of government's most important functions is dissemination of information, and the Web has become a way to get information to those who need it—state and local governments, businesses, taxpayers, educators. The results of government-funded studies are increasingly disseminated via the Web as well as in print, and these are often a great source for research material. The National Park Service, Library of Congress and many other government agencies are using the Web both to fulfill the functions for which they were formed and to promote their agencies' work. For example, a quick search for John Wilkes Booth turns up several nice pages of information from the Park Service at Fords' Theater in Washington, D.C. This information is comparable in scope and reliability to the information you'd get at a library.

Nonprofit organizations provide information relevant to their key issues.Nonprofits were slower than commercial ventures in upgrading technology and therefore slower to come online with information, but now there's a lot of good material being posted.

Full-text versions of works whose copyright has expired are being digitized and posted to the Web for public use by some libraries and academic institutions, and many are available online. Many of these are fiction, poetry, drama.

So what's missing? Why can it be so difficult to do comprehensive research on the Web? What's not on the Web—at least not for free—are most of the comprehensive reference works you'd find in a library reference room and nonfiction collection. Why? It costs publishers a lot of money to put together that information and they're in business to sell it—they have nothing else to sell. They're not in the same position as an investment company who can author and publish some free information about investing techniques and then make money by selling you a mutual fund. These book publishers are in the business of selling the information they write or compile and they're not about to give it away by posting it on the Web. The exceptions to this are some dictionaries, almanacs and other single-volume reference works that are easily digitized and where sales of the print product are not seen as threatened by the Web.

Things you're not likely to find on the Web for free:

  • index and abstract services (very labor-intensive to produce but are essential to a scholarly researcher looking for journal articles and therefore very profitable to sell to libraries)
  • books that are still under copyright
  • full-text nonfiction books on scholarly topics
  • most scholarly journal articles (this is changing)
  • pre-1994 (pre-Web) magazine and newspaper articles (this may change)

If you look at the list of what's not on the Web, it covers about 90% of the contents of a college library's collection, both the reference and the circulating collection. It's apparent that researchers still have to spend a good portion of their research time in the library rather than on the Web.


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A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz