Tech entrepreneur Mitchell Kapor is quoted as saying: “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” Can you imagine drinking from a fire hydrant? Not the easiest task, but neither is searching. A single Google search will find millions of results in many different formats.
How do you know what you are looking at? Let’s take a look using the results of vaccines autism Google search as an example (see live search). The examples below can be found on Page 1.
Blogs are part of the social media family. They are updated on a regular basis and can be run by a person or an organization. Some blogs are part of a website. Blog posts (a post is a blog entry) typically invite comments from readers, and posts are organized in categories, as well as available through archives. Stand-alone blogs are very easy to create and maintain and can be used as a communication platform for anyone, from elementary school students and community groups to medical professionals.
Here are ways in which you can recognize a blog post:
- Blogs are sometimes hosted on a free blogging platform. WordPress and Blogger (blogspot) are the most popular ones. Because it is now easy to buy a customized URL (web address), many blogs have a URL that does not include wordpress or blogspot in it. Blogs hosted on a free platform have theme information at the bottom of the page (in the footer). For example: Blog at WordPress.com | The Dyad Theme (see example).
- Blog posts typically have a post-publication date (time-stamped blog posts). This is linked to the blog archive system that groups blog posts by month/year of publication.
- Content can be organized in categories (topics), and archived by date.
- Blogs typically invite comments on posts, although it is easy to disable comments.
- Blogs include social media sharing options.
The example above is a blog that is part of a website, run by a non-profit organization that is membership-based. This blog does not accept reader comments; they are disabled. Content is organized in Categories (topics), and Archives (posts by month of publication). A giveaway for it being a blog is the bolded Blog link in the top navigation. It looks like this blog was custom built and integrated as part of the website.
Dictionary.com defines website as following:
“A set of interconnected webpages, usually including a homepage, generally located on the same server, and prepared and maintained as a collection of information by a person, group, or organization.”
This is a good definition. Websites are one of the types of information sources you will find online. Websites are typically more static, which means that information on them does not change too often (in comparison to blogs, where posts can be added daily, monthly, etc.).
The above is an example of a webpage that is part of a website. The website is run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the page on Autism is part of the Vaccine Safety section. The website was developed by an organization that is linked to the US government. You can see this by looking at the beginning part of the URL (web address): http://www.cdc.gov/, .gov = government.
Academic Journal Articles
Academic journal articles are highly specialized, and use discipline specific words to talk about research. Some are peer-reviewed, looked at by subject specialists before publication to make sure information is valid and of interest to the professional community.
Until recently, all academic articles were published in subscription based journals. Subscription based means that the person who wants to read the article, has to pay for it. Databases paid for by libraries and/or professional organizations, house a number of academic journals.
A number of academic journals are now available online for free. The journals are referred to as open access journals, and they do not require payment for preview. In open access publications, the reader does not have to pay any fees in order to read articles published by the journal. This allows more people to have access to academic research.
The above example is an open access article, published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal.
Here is how you can recognize an academic article:
Academic articles tend to be long. They are usually text heavy and include tables, data and no illustrations.
Academic articles use language specific to the subject area. The language is very specialized and academic, and may not be easily understood by the general public.
All academic journals clearly show who the authors are, listing their academic credentials and/or professional affiliations.
Every academic article has an abstract, which is a short description, or summary, of what the article is about.
Academic articles are divided into clearly identified sections. Most have an Introduction and a Conclusion, with other section headings specific to information presented.
- Research and Data
Every academic article mentions other research done on the topic and shows data and figures specific to new research carried out by the authors.
- Citations and References
As you read through an academic article, you will see many in-text citations in the body of the article. These in-text citations link directly to the list of references at the end of the article. References tell you, the reader, where some of the information in the article came from, and give you access to more research on the topic.
Some academic articles include appendices (plural of appendix). An example of an appendix could be the survey tool used to collect information for the article, or a raw data set collected while doing research.
Encyclopedia articles gather in-depth information on a topic. Facts are supported by research, found in the References section below the article and authors are not usually identified.
Wikipedia is the most popular open encyclopedia, freely available online. Information in Wikipedia articles is crowdsourced, which means that anyone can add or edit article content. This is both positive and negative. The positive side of crowd editing is wide coverage; the negative side is potentially erroneous (wrong) information. As with all encyclopedias, Wikipedia articles have references at the end of most articles. While Wikipedia is a good starting point, do not focus all of your research on these articles and do find other sources.
Popular Magazine Articles
Popular magazine articles have information on a wide variety of subjects presented in easy-to-understand language. Some have a subject focus (for example: Scientific American, Astronomy, Business Week, Time), but as a whole, popular magazines are written for consumers and not subject specialists. Language used in magazine articles is easier to understand by the general public, and while sometimes other research is included or linked to, this is not a requirement for publication.
When research articles or reports are included in popular magazine articles, anecdotes supporting the studies are included to engage the readers, providing everyday evidence to support findings of the study. Look beyond the anecdotes, and try to locate the source, or primary research.>
The article in Scientific American shown above is an example of a popular magazine article. Written to add to conversations in popular media, consumer magazines reflect popular culture, interests and views of the general public.
Here are tools to help you spot a magazine article:
They are much shorter than academic articles.
They are written in language easy to understand by the general public.
Full-colour images, photographs and illustrations are found in popular magazine articles.
The author’s/journalist’s name is sometimes included, but sometimes not. Online articles typically have the author’s name available.
While some magazine articles link to studies and data in the body of the article, very few, if any, provide references.
Online versions of magazines articles often include a Comments section. Comments sometimes provide more information on the topic, but most of the time reflect personal opinions of readers.
News Outlet Posts/Articles
You will often find newspaper articles and posts written by news outlets (like CNN, etc.) in your Google results. News articles reflect a community’s interests and share information as it happens. News articles can vary in length and some articles are opinion pieces. Comments are typically enabled and readers’ insights are visible.
Google displays news articles in a special In the News box, embedded in Page 1 of the results page, and also links to additional sources in the results list. Here is an example:
Other Types Of Results
When you look at the Google results page, you will see other types of resources, specifically images, videos and books. A lot of good information can be found in non-text-based formats, like videos. Although sometimes Google will place the most relevant ones in the search results, remember that you can select to view specific resource types by clicking on the links directly under the search box.