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Technology Tip of the Month

November, 1996: Finding Authoritative Sources on the Internet

Updated November 2003

by Deborah Healey

This month's Tech Tip revisits that ongoing source of frustration: finding useful, authoritative information on the Internet. See the July, 1996 and August, 1996 Tech Tips for information about evaluating online sources, and the February, 1996 and November, 2003 Tech Tips for information about searching for information offline and online.

This month's Tip uses insights provided by May Chau, a research librarian at Oregon State University in a workshop entitled "Finding Order in a Chaotic World" on October 18, 1996.

A basic assumption underlying the proposed method of searching is that no search tool, on or off the Internet, is going to find everything. Like their paper counterparts, electronic indexes each have their on focus and method of indexing. The key, then, is to have a method that will minimize the misses while maximizing the useful information returned.

One of the reasons I am particularly fond of this method is that it assumes people don't rely on machines to do their thinking for them--there is an expectation of brain function on the part of the human for the method to work. Students (and their teachers!) can fall into the habit of doing an electronic search as the beginning and end point of looking for information, a sure way of missing important sources.

May Chau gives five basic steps in her method:

  1. Identify
  2. Link
  3. Examine
  4. Apply
  5. Organize

Step One: Identify

identifyThis step requires the most off-computer thought, perhaps encouraging a visit to the local librarian for help. In the Identify step, searchers create a list of likely authoritative information providers. Three questions that Chau recommends asking and the related resources she suggests are:
Is there a federal or state government agency related to your subject area?
Look for reference books in the library (in italics below) or their Web counterparts, such as:
Tapping the Government Grapevine: The User-friendly Guide to the US Government Information Services; this has no specific Web counterpart.

United States Government Manual; US Government Manual--

Oregon Blue Book for general facts about Oregon; Oregon Home Page--

These and their equivalents in other states and countries will help you find the agency or department relevant to your topic of interest.

Are there professional associations related to your area?
Encyclopedia of Associations; Associations on the Net--

Benefit (a list of over 23,000 associations); this has no specific Web counterpart yet, but you could do a Web search for association plus the topic you're interested in.

Is there a university or research center with a strong program in an area related to your topic?
Research Centers Directory; this has no specific Web counterpart, but you can try a Web search using Research +Center +____ (your topic area) with a search engine like Google or go through Yahoo's subject tree.

Make a list of the resources as you come up with them, preferably in some sort of table that you can organize later. Be sure to record the URLs as you find them. This will prepare you for the next steps.

Step Two: Link

No, this doesn't mean to go to the computer. Chau suggests creating a concept map that shows the information providers you've found and their interrelationships as a way of both thinking of additional possibilities and finding alternative routes to the sa me information.

The graphic below shows some possible sources and interconnections for research on gun control in the US.
concept map

Some of the major government agencies involved in the US are the US Congress; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF); the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Related professional associations include the National Rifle Association (NRA), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). There are a number of "think tanks" and organizations that deal with political issues, such as the Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institute, Congressional Quarterly, and PoliticsNow.

There are links between all of the government agencies; between the professional associations, particularly the NRA, and the US Congress; between the National Institutes of Health and the American Medical Association; and among the "think tanks," organizations, and Congress. Information flows from one place to another along all these links, so the same information may pop up in more than one place.

Step Three: Examine

In this step, you're looking closely at your information providers. Look in depth at the organizations and groups you've identified to see if there's a particular subdivision that relates to your area of interest. Try to find as many Internet sites as possible for the organizations and groups you've noted. Now you're ready to start in earnest into your Internet search.

Step Four: Apply

Using Google, type in the search terms that fit what you're looking for. Use web search tools (see November, 2003 for what those are) where possible to focus in on the specific area.

Record the sites that look promising -- bookmarks or Favorites are very helpful. You can set folders within a bookmark file, which will help you organize your information in the next step. Look at the address (the URL) for a clue about whether this is an educational (.edu), a government (.gov), a commercial (.com), a military (.mil), or a non-specific (.net or other) site.

If you don't see information from one of the sources you identified earlier, you'll need to search for that source directly, then search through the information provided by that source. Remember that search engines are not exhaustive and occasionally inaccurate, so try more than one set of search terms to find your information.

How many times you go back to the lists you prepared initially will depend on how much good-quality information you're finding. It's important to remember that while the Internet provides a lot of information, it still takes time and thought to find good information.

Step Five: Organize

organizeThis is the record-keeping step, where you compile the results you've gotten from different searches and sources. How you organize the information will vary with personal preference and amount of information, but it's generally helpful to have some sort of table that gives information providers, search results, and URLs. For example, some of the gun control information could be stored like this:

Information providersURLsSearch results
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms https://www.atf.govinformation about firearms, including Brady Law
National Rifle Association articles, including research against gun control
PoliticsNowhttps://www.politicsnow.combalanced overview of the issue

Chau suggests avoiding the problem of Internet flight--the tendency of documents on the Internet to move or disappear--by downloading entire documents to disk. You'll need to store your information in an organized way, of course, and be sure to include the URL and date you found the information for later citation.

Next Steps

Now you've got all this information, it's time to look again to see if you've missed any major information providers, especially ones that might give a different perspective on the issue of interest. Think again about how accurate the information you've found is, and weed out information from unreliable sources. It's time to write!

Many thanks to May Chau for sharing her insights and information!

See Other tech tips

If you have questions, comments, or for more information, contact Deborah Healey, dhealey AT uoregon DOT edu
Last updated 8 July, 2009