Monday, May 31, 2010

THE WRITE STUFF: Internet Research

By Margaret Birth

My older son has just come home with yet another school project involving Internet research. Of course, it’s not only students who need to do research. Writers are among those who also need to do so—yes, sometimes even authors of contemporary fiction. (For my published stories, I’ve researched topics as diverse as spinal cord injuries, patterns of behavior of both aggressor and victim in teen dating abuse, and custody laws pertaining to non-family-member guardians.) Sadly, many people who do research— students, writers, and others—don’t know how to evaluate sources properly; my casual observations lead me to believe that this is particularly true of research using Internet sites.

In my job as a manuscript reader for a major romance publisher, I’ve encountered more than a few submissions in which I caught errors in the writing— errors in areas that the authors, in their cover letters, claimed to have researched. If you’ve been reading my column for a while now, you may recall that I wrote about anachronisms and malapropisms some time ago; as with anachronisms, a writer never knows when a reader or an editor may have specialized knowledge about a time-period or a topic—and, if that’s the case, and the reader or editor finds egregious mistakes, then that’s a strike—sometimes a major strike—against the possibility of the manuscript being accepted for publication. There are steps you can take to assure yourself that the Internet sources you use for research are most likely giving you accurate information:

● Don’t believe everything you read. Anyone can post anything they want to on the Internet. People can easily lie about credentials or claim expertise they possess.

● Do double-check any credentials a person claims to have. If a person claims, on their personally owned Victorian England Web site, to be a history professor at Harvard, for instance, you should go to the Harvard Web site and verify that they’re among the History Department faculty (current or emeritus) listed there. If they’re not, then your Victorian England “expert” may be a fraud. By the same token, you can go to college and university Web sites to verify whether or not a person has the B.A., M.B.A., M.A., Ph.D., M.D., etc., they claim to have been awarded by that particular institution.

● Don’t assume that information must be correct if you’ve read it on two or more Web sites. Sometimes wrong-headed people copy incorrect information from other wrong-headed people.

● Do begin your research by going to Web sites for colleges and universities, governmental agencies, public and academic institution libraries, major companies, well-known magazines and newspapers, and major organizations that you know to have legitimate reputations.

You can’t necessarily trust fan-based or commercial Web sites, or the person who claims to be a government astrophysicist on their own Web site (although some of those are fine, too), but you can trust that governmental agency Web sites should have valid information, and may lead you to reliable links for other agencies, universities, and organizations—maybe even to real governmental astrophysicists’ personally owned Web sites!

To give but one example, a couple of summers ago, my boys and I decided to make weather our summer science topic. When we wanted to learn about hurricanes and tornadoes, we went straight to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Web site. Next time there’s severe weather, just see if you don’t hear a meteorologist talk about information they’ve learned from NOAA!

You know the American Medical Association and the Romance Writers of America are two legitimate organizations, that the Boston Globe is a newspaper with a national reputation, and that Xerox is a well-known technology company; these are more examples of the kinds of Web sites that should have valid information and that might provide links to lead you to other legitimate Web sites—sites that are worthy sources for your research. Not only do good, legitimate Web sites often provide links to other good, legitimate Web sites, but some of them also provide bibliographies about the topics they cover on their sites; these bibliographies can lead you to book titles that might be helpful, too. Of course, you can then look up those book titles on a library Web site, to see if you can find a library nearby to check them out! ♥

Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad; in addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor. It's all of this experience on both sides of the publishing desk that has inspired her column, "The Write Stuff," which has appeared regularly in RWA/NYC's newsletter, Keynotes, for the past ten years.


  1. Hiya:

    These are all great suggestions, Maria. As a librarian at long Island University I often work with students to determine the best sources for their research papers. People have been taught to believe that Google has all the answers. The are shocked to find out that much information is propietary and NOT available for free and might never be, in spite of the best efforts of Google. There is a wealth quality information available to the library patron through electronic databases that is not availble through Google. If you have a library card you can access any of these databaes through the public library's web page. Call the librarians at the Research Library on Fifth Avenue and ask for help. In addition, if you have any kind of college or unniversity affiliation at all, do make use of the databases and college/unniversity library book collection. Ask for help! librarians are trained to help people with these questions and should be happy to provide assistance and teach you how to do it yourself. Never feel like you have to go it alone! Do ask for and expect to receive help along the way.
    If you don't have any college affliation and feel you do need college leve research assistance, call the librarians at a college/unniversity directly and see if there isn't a way to beg, borrow, steal your way onto campus.Often time, you can get into a library without being a student! Good luck! (Also, feel free to contact me to help!)

  2. A favorite research source for me has been the NY public library where you can find and have access to original writings, maps etc. Thanks, Margaret for this reminder.

  3. One of my very favorite reference sites was given to me by an ex-surgical resident of mine who told me this was a standard for students and anyone who needed info quickly for papers and presentations. A couple of the sites are mainly for doctors, and some require registering, but most are straightforward. Even the military is represented here with manuals on triage and the standards like Merck and Steadman's are here as well. From A through Z, is handy for writers to have around!