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An Intelligent Guide to Successful Online Research


Researching on the Internet:
The Complete Guide to Finding, Evaluating, and Organizing Information Effectively
Robin Rowland and Dave Kinnaman
Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA, USA, 384 pp, paper, $43.95.

Reviewed by Barrie Zwicker

Any book about the Internet joins a horde of competitors; all are aging fast as soon as they roll off the presses. This book holds its own and appears to have staying power. Its authors - one Canadian and one American - are experienced researchers who discuss the Internet with enthusiasm but not awe.

Their writing is clear. They put the Internet into context for the serious researcher.

Rowland, the Canadian, provides the backbone text of special interest to reporters and other journalistic researchers. In 1977 he was already using primitive computers working in radio journalism with the CBC. Four years later he was working in videotex, an ill-fated (partly because it was ahead of its time) attempt to create online services.

Today Rowland is the Webmaster for CBC-TV's Newsworld. On July 3 he was appointed Project Director of Canada's first university-based training institute for computer-assisted reporting, at Ryerson Polytechnic University. Co-author Kinnaman is a systems analyst for the State of Texas. He has co-authored several books about the Internet. One of his concerns is for access by persons with disabilities.

This practical and humane team deal with "Internet-a-Phobia," choosing an Internet provider, getting ready for research, and provide descriptions of the Internet's research tools, the how-to's of research, and Netiquette.

Bonuses include some history about the Internet, a chapter on ethical and legal issues, and one chapter each on major libraries on the Internet and government resources on the Internet.

For journalists and other serious researchers the heart of the book is the content dealing with how to find stuff, preferably fast. In this respect the 20-page chapter on "the E-mail Interview" is worth the price alone. Rowland told me this is his personal favourite chapter.

While most of the advice that applies to telephone or personal interviews also applies to E-mail interviews, there are additional Netiquette rules to take into consideration. The technology and dynamics are new and provide opportunities as well as dangers.

The authors note that E-mail is a reversion to the advantages of the old-fashioned letter, but with the benefits that it's very fast while solving the time zone problem in a way the telephone cannot.

A new dimension is the need for "lurking," to get a sense of the volume and direction of discussion in a newsgroup, and to identify people who know what they're talking about, to find sources in other words. Another new facet is that E-mail leaves a trail. If you're planning a hatchet job, or are under-prepared, your potential interviewee can access your E-mailed questions to others. The results may be less than glorious; you could even end up in court.

What's old is the need to "do basic research, both on and offline, before you ask a single question." And to be skeptical. As Internet trainer and CBC fifth estate producer Julian Sher notes, not only may information on the Net be wrong, it may not be coming from the person or group identified as putting it on.

The chapter on E-mail, like most of the chapters, contains several clear summarized lists of do's and don'ts, and plenty of examples.

The 12-point check list for evaluating data found on the Internet is typically sound, and it comes from Finding Answers: The Essential Guide to Gathering Information in Canada, by our own Informatics Consultant, Dean Tudor (see the latest Dean's Digital World). Dean's "The Tao of Good Research" is also printed verbatim.

It's refreshing, too, that a book on researching on the Internet would provide a seven-point list of drawbacks and problems inherent in research on the Internet. "Books and magazines are still the best method for storing most information in an easily accessible form. After all, the word magazine comes from the Arabic word makzan, which means storehouse."

This is an intelligent book, not a simplistic primer, although it makes its points with clarity and simplicity. On evaluating sources of information, the authors quote historian Barbara Tuchman, who writes: "Bias in a primary source is to be expected. One allows for it and corrects it by reading another version… Even if an event is not controversial, it will have been seen and remembered from different angles of view by different observers." Later she's quoted: "As the lion in Aesop said to the Man, 'There are many statues of men slaying lions, but if only the lions were sculptors there might be quite a different set of statues.' "

Hints that the Internet may transmute in unhealthy ways can be found here. The noise-to-signal ratio is rising; commercialization is rising; "many researchers are ignoring Usenet altogether and opting for moderated or private mailing lists," note the authors.

They remain optimistic, however, that most of us can learn to research successfully on the Internet, and will find it beneficial to do so for some time to come. Their book is an intelligent comprehensive guide for doing so.

Barrie Zwicker is Publisher of Sources and founder of SOURCES SELECT Online. He can be reached at bzwicker@sources.com

This article originally appeared in Sources, 38th edition.

See also:
Digging Up Ottawa's Gold
Researching on Parliament Hill
Using the Library of Parliament
Getting the Goods: Information in B.C.
Finding Answers: Approaches to Gathering Information
Search Engines
Life In the Fast Lane: E-Prints Speed Spread Of Research Results
An Intelligent Guide to Intelligent Research
Index of Book Reviews


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