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From 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 in years.

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 Hawking.'

Recommended sites

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.


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