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Research in the Digital Age: Part 2: Sources

Evaluating your sources is so vital, if you’re not prepared to do it, you’re better off not researching in the first place. Accepting everything you find online as gospel is a guarantee of disaster.

Specially, we need to watch out for narrow and poor-quality sources.

Narrow sources offer only a selection (often a very careful selection) of the information available on a topic. This may be due to the biases of the source provider, or it may be that you seem to have a number of similar sources when you actually have several instances of restated information from a single third-party source.

Content of poor quality can be the result of lazy work or of people who purposefully want to mislead you. The research may be flawed from having a small number of participants, bad questions, or just plain bad math. Information provided may be offered with the express purpose of lying to you, like a company website that claims it doesn’t pollute when it does or produces “Made in the USA” merchandize actually manufactured in Indonesia.

Knowing this, you’ll find some places easy to avoid. JoesAlienBabyIdentifier.com won’t look like a good place to get information on US integration policies, and IHateLiberalSnowflakes.org won’t be your first choice for information on millennials.

But most bad information online tries very hard to look authoritative. For more advanced anti-BS skills, there are three major solutions.


Yup, remember libraries? Even better, remember librarians? These are educated and experienced people in information evaluation. They’ll also help you for free.

After getting your card, go up to the librarian on duty and tell them what you’re researching. They may refer you to another librarian with more experience in your topic, or they might decide to show you the basics of the online card catalog and general layout of the library to help you get started.

Remember that librarians deal daily with resources and materials you’ve probably never even heard of. Be ready to take notes. The person helping you has likely gone into the field because they’re passionate about information. (It certainly wasn’t for the money.) They may even volunteer to conduct research after your initial meeting and follow up with additional thoughts.

Use Those Academic Sources

Yes, papers written for trade and literary journals can seem daunting, and sometimes they require payment, but remember that academic abstracts are free and can lead to all manner of other sources. Use Google Scholar (Ask your librarian for help, if you like.) to find specific, scientifically verified information straight from the source.

Avoid Random Real-Life Stories

As soon as you start discussing ideas with friends, you’re going to get stories about someone who died, went broke, got divorced, or otherwise met disaster trying to do whatever you’re interested in. Ignore them. A good party story is a bad information resource.

Instead, use LinkedIn and other professional networking sites to find people who actually do what you’re thinking of pursuing. Prepare thoughtful, answerable questions. For example, don’t ask, “How do you like being a CEO?” Ask, “Do I need an MBA to be taken seriously in the field?” or, “What is considered an entry-level position in this field?”

All three of these approaches require you to verify the authority of your sources, not just pursue the loud and shiny sources looking to sell you something.