the Science Writers Association of Canada
Doing research on the Web
By David Shiga
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the Internet, Web research isn't
about to replace more traditional methods. The humble telephone
remains the journalist's most indispensable research tool. But when
the Web is used as a complement to more traditional tools, it can
give you a leg up over the competition. Most journalists use the
Web at least occasionally in the course of their work. But very
few take the time to really hone their Web research skills. Spending
just twenty minutes to do so, however, can more than pay for itself
in the long run.
Search engines aren't always best
Keep in mind that the Web is great for some things and lousy for
others. Use it for what it's good for. If you save a trip to the
library only to spend hours casting about online for the same information,
you're no further ahead. If you want to know the meaning of a technical
term, typing it into Google often is the fastest way to find out.
But if you want in-depth background on cell biology, for example,
you're better off browsing a textbook like Molecular Biology
of the Cell, where information is nicely organized and comprehensive,
rather than picking through links on the Web.
If it's in-depth information you want, search engines should be
a last resort. The listings are comprehensive, but there's no way
to tell the difference between a link to an extensive passage and
a passing reference. And there's no way to determine the quality
of anything in the listings either. You can save yourself a lot
of time if you can find a list of links that someone else has prepared
on your subject of interest. After all, why do all the hard work
of separating the wheat from the chaff if someone else has already
done it for you? Try typing something like "dark matter links"
or "dark matter sites" to find pages with lists of links.
Directories are another alternative to search engines. If search
engines are like book indexes, directories are more like tables
of contents. For an example of a directory, click on "directory"
from the main Google site. In theory, you can find what you want
simply by clicking on categories and subcategories until you've
narrowed things down enough. In practice, it is often very unclear
where to find a particular category. One way to jump straight to
the right category is to do a search like "sharks endangered
directory." That will lead you to any directory pages that
list sites on sharks and conservation or similar subjects.
It's often helpful to know when the page you're viewing was last
updated. If the page doesn't say, you can find out when it was last
updated by right clicking on it and choosing "Properties"
from the pop-up menu. Unfortunately, many pages are increasingly
set to default to today's date, even if they haven't been updated
Search engine tips
Take the time to learn advanced features of search engines. Even
if you've done a million searches already, read the "search
tips" at Google or whatever search engine you use. The best
search engines are constantly adding new features. You can learn
several advanced search methods in just a few minutes and it will
save you time in the long run. Check out www.google.com/help and
www.google.com/options/specialsearches.html, in particular.
You can use www.google.com/options/universities.html to restrict
your search to a particular university's site, or www.google.com/unclesam
to search only U.S. government sites. You can restrict yourself
to sites that end with .org or whatever ending you want by typing
a search like "climate change site:org." To get only University
of Toronto pages, try "climate change site:www.utoronto.ca."
You can do most of these things without learning new codes by using
the "advanced search" page, linked from the main Google
page. If you're looking for images, don't type "gorillas pictures."
Use Google image search instead. Click on "Images" from
the main Google page to get there.
Often your search results will be cluttered with irrelevant links.
If you want information on light emitting diodes but are getting
only commercial sites, try a search like "light emitting diodes
-product -price," which will eliminate sites containing the
words product or price. Don't forget to use phrases in quotation
marks to narrow down your search, especially when using common words.
If you're trying to find an article that you read recently on Stephen
Hawking that happened to contain the phrase "fire in the hole,"
a search that like '"fire in the hole" Stephen Hawking'
will be more likely to lead you to it than 'fire in the hole Stephen
There's no shortage of useful Web sites out there for science journalists.
The major scientific journals, like Science (www.sciencemag.org)
and Nature (www.nature.com) have current and past issues online,
though you'll need to pay for full content. There are a couple of
sites that try to be one-stop sources for breaking news in science-check
out www.sciencedaily.com and www.eurekalert.org. Various science
writers' associations have Web sites with helpful tips on science
writing, including the Canadian Science Writer's Association (www.sciencewriters.ca),
the National Science Writers'Association (www.nasw.org), and the
Association of British Science Writers (www.absw.org.uk.) The Writers'
Market Web site, at www.writersmarket.com, features a database of
magazines and other publication that can help you find outlets for
your writing and properly tailor your query letters.
The Web isn't a panacea, but it can help you do your job faster
and better. Take some time to hone your Web searching skills and
you'll reap the benefits again and again.
Sources, 489 College
Street, Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763
Include yourself in Sources
Mailing Lists and
Media Names & Numbers
Names & Numbers