When you need information, one of the first things you probably do is search the Internet. No matter what keywords or phrases you use to search, you’ll likely turn up a flood of results—some that are exactly what you want and others that make you wonder why on Earth they showed up. Suddenly, you’ve gone from not having enough information to having way too much. How do you drink from this fire hose and find accurate information? This month’s column offers some questions to help you sort the useful from the useless.
SOURCE. Who published the information? Who is paying to make it available? Does the source have an agenda or a reason to post information that is not objective? Who is the intended audience, and does that audience have any assumptions that might affect the interpretation? Is the site supported by advertisements, and if so, might the advertiser have had reason to slant the presentation one way or another? Is the information freely available to everyone, or do you have to pay to access it? If the latter, what sort of quality control does that fee buy you?
AUTHOR. Who is the author? Did he or she provide contact information? With what institutions or organizations is the author associated? What is the person’s reputation, and what credentials or expertise does he or she have on the subject? Is the material anonymous? If so, is there a reason the author might not want to be associated with the content?
PEER REVIEW. Has the article or site been peer reviewed by other experts in the field? Does it contain references and links to quality supporting information? Do other sources reference this source? Has the material been carefully edited, or is it full of typographical errors and inconsistencies?
TIMELINESS. When was the information published, and when was it last updated? If the specific article itself isn’t dated, is there a date on the site? If the date is old, is the subject matter still relevant? Could more recent developments have occurred, and if so, does the site lead you to them? Are the links current and valid or dated and broken? Is the site reliable—if you go back a day or a week later, is the information still there? Has anything been updated?
VERIFICATION. No matter how good the source is, you should always confirm the answer you’ve found. Does the author list his or her assumptions and indicate what is fact and what is opinion? Does the material make sense in light of your own knowledge about the subject? Does it agree with other sources? If it disagrees, does the material discuss competing theories or ignore them?
A wise man once said, “Sometimes good people (and content) end up in bad places. That doesn’t make them bad.” Now that a whole world of information is available at the click of a mouse, it’s crucial to be able to evaluate it critically and separate the useful nuggets from useless ramblings.
Get Involved In The Discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers).