Tuesday, August 30, 2011

INTERNET RESEARCH: Not Always the Deep Throat of Trusted Information

By: Kathleen Pickering  http://www.kathleenpickering.com

When turning your research sights on Internet sources for your writing, how can you be certain you’re discovering trusted information?

deepthroatIt’s not like back in Watergate days, when Bob Woodward spoke to a voice on the phone who gave him enough evidence to prove he was reliable enough to deserve the title, “Deep Throat.”

Those were the days. Drama while researching a story. Nice. Now, who knows from where comes the wellspring of Internet “facts”? How can we be sure the information we pull from the digital ether won’t leave us with egg on our face? Or worse: some reader sending an email proving our information was wrong. Major story killer!

Personally, I prefer on-site research for my stories, and so far have been able to use that tool successfully. However, I do rely on the Internet for facts. Ironic as it sounds, I searched the Internet to find guidelines for researching reliable sources on-line. I found the most reliable tips from websites for university libraries. Since the first tip was to check the authority of a source, I thought colleges would offer the most unbiased tools for determining reliable information.

research3I found when choosing an article, blog, website, government document, historical journal or any resource posted online five key areas should be considered:

1. The Authority of the author/publisher of information.

You should be able to identify the author of the work/site, his/her credentials, relevant affiliations, and past writings. The article itself should offer information, or sources like Who’s Who, the  author’s home page, or Google search the publishers/author’s name to see what other works support their credentials.

2. The Objectivity of the author.

What is the motive for your source’s article, blog, website? Does your source admit to a particular bias? Offer historical, medical or industry facts and not opinions, or affiliation viewpoints? Can you compare the information to other independent sites/articles to verify facts?

3. The Quality of the information:

Do the facts agree with your own knowledge of the subject? Can you insure information is complete and accurate by comparing with other specialists in the field? Does this author list other sources for his/her information, as well? And, believe it or not, check the site, article or blog for grammatical and spelling errors, typos. These usually indicate a non-professional delivery of information, making the facts suspect.

research6

4. Evaluate Date of information:

When was the information published?  Check the date on the web page for publication date and revision dates. Is the information current? Does it update old facts? Substantiate other materials you’ve read? 

5. Establish Relevance of the information:

Are these facts popular vs. scholarly? (Huffington Post vs. Wall Street Journal)Does the information use raw data, photographs, first-hand accounts, reviews or research reports? Has the information been analyzed and the resources cited? Are footnotes, endnotes or bibliographies listed?

Remember, Wikipedia is no the end-all of resources, since anyone can edit it. And, a rule of thumb is to ensure you tap at least five different sources to verify your facts before accepting your information as usable.

So far, I’ve been lucky. But, I’ve only just begun my writing career. Has anyone out there put facts in their book they pulled from the Internet only to discover the source was wrong?

 

22 comments:

  1. Great tips, Kathy. It's always good to get at least 2 sources on info that's critical to a story. I would suggest adding portals to the "hidden web" to your online research sources. The hidden web is about 500 times larger than the Internet and allows you access to many major university and government databases. You can find links on my website research page at http://joe-moore.com/research/. Scroll all the way to the last set of links.

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  2. Hey Kathleen--Nice post on research. I've found it important to verify key facts from multiple sources-online, books, expert advice on technical stuff, and hands-on experience. I even question the advice of certain technical advisors (& use secondary resources) because they may be biased on the topic or be too opinionated in one direction. Then because we are writing fiction, sometimes you have to balance the reality of expert advice to what the reader might see as common knowledge derived from CSI type TV shows. (Yes, I've had these kinds of discussions with cops--reality vs reader expectation of the truth vs something inbetween.)

    I might generally start with the internet since it is quick & easy to use and you can keep looking at queries until you find a credible one. I also like to use certain authoritative & recommended books on topics like forensics or blogs geared for writers, like doctor & author Doug P Lyle's excellent site or Lee Lofland's blog on police info. Then there's hands-on workshops, firing weapons at a gun range, onsite visits to crime labs & similar facilities, getting expert advice from technical advisors, riding shot gun with an on-duty cop or tours at my local cop shop.

    One of my favorite experiences was partipating in a local Citizens Police Academy, over 45 hours of presentations from experts that concluded with a day at the firing range where we shot various weapons, blew up stuff with the bomb squad, & watched the k-9 unit work. I met my first tech advisor there, my LT who ran the program. He knew I wanted to use a flashbang in my book so he set one off near me. (Only a writer would think that was a good thing.) I ended up making him a character in that book. His wife said I nailed him.

    While I was in DC for a writers conference, I got to visit the State Dept, the CIA at Langley, and visited the FBI at Quantico (and fired various kinds of weapons on their firing range).

    I do these things mainly because they interest me and I want to build on my crime fiction knowledge base. I also belong to some great writer loops who have retired crime scene analysts, doctors, weapons experts, EMTs & firemen, and former cops & FBI folks. Author Jan Burke has a wonderful forensics newsletter that I've signed up for, just because it interests me & I love her writing. There's lots of great resources out there, way more fun than using the internet.

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  3. I needed this post today. After work I'm planning on more research and I'll review your notes before digging in.
    Thanks!
    Jackie

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  4. Internet research should be treated the same as a cop or journalist interviews sources: verify everything. Also be careful not to use as a second source a site that either got its info from the first place you looked, or was itself the first site's source.

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  5. Wow, Joe! A hidden web? Should have guessed! Thanks for this great tip. I'll make you page one of my trusted resources.LOL!!

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  6. Jordan-- Talk about adding drama to research! Woman, your energy jumps right off the page.

    I realize how critical it is for mystery writers, especially, to get their facts straight. Shooting guns, studying blood spatter, detonating bombs or discussing how to kill someone w/a knife leaving just a trace of evidence, certainly makes the heart pump. Mystery writers are a special breed. That's why I love attending Sleuthfest and Thriller Writer conferences!

    So, when can we have coffee . . . or a car bomb? (Joke!) I want to hear more!

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  7. Jackie-- glad I can help. Check out Joe and Jordan's comments, as well. Great stuff!

    Jackie--Absolutely. The source's source will just verify the original source! LOL!!! Take another viewpoint, for sure.

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  8. I'd love to, K. Or some of those umbrella drinks served by cute cabana boys.

    Author & doc Kathryn Fox tells a funny story about inviting a guy friend over for dinner. (Imagine this story being told in a charming British or Australian accent. Can't remember where she's from, but I remember laughing harder because of this cheeky accent.)

    For dessert, they role played attempted murder. She wanted to know if she could get away from a knife wielding assailant in her living room, lock herself in a bathroom, & shimmy out a restroom window. She finally succeeded, but fell to the ground head first.

    All I can say is, I'd love to be her neighbor.

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  9. Awesome post and total truth. First, I want to spend my next vacation at Jordan's house. I promise to exchange lawyer knowledge for demolition training!

    One tidbit I've given to writers groups and in crits is about law. If you are placing your story in a specific setting, you need to know what the law is there - not how it's done in New York. "Law & Order" is not how it goes in most parts of the country. My friend who is a prosecutor and I often laugh about it.

    I'll throw this out. The best legal databases are by subscription. However, for public access to statutes and caselaw, give this a try:

    http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/

    It also has links to the various states and circuit courts. And the homepage: www.findlaw.com has some good links to discussions of different types of law and elements of different crimes.

    However, at the end of the day, you have to go to the state. For example, spitting in a cop's face is a misdemeanor in one place (can't remember the state), but a felony in Kansas.

    Same with crimes like bigamy. I had a guy with a bigamy warrant out of one state while I was repping wife number 8 in another state. I wanted him arrested. Even though bigamy was a felony in my state, they wouldn't extradite him because it was a misdemeanor in the other.

    Both of those situations had a major effect on the outcome of my case and could in a story because it determines if your guy goes to county jail or state DOC.

    Enough rambling! Gotta get to work.

    Terri

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  10. I tend to use the internet for very basic research when I'm just starting out but for my field of interest (historicals) I've found the dusty old texts published in the 1940's-70's (and a few from the 19th century) to be far more helpful.

    However, I have recently begun to research some more contemorary topics on the net and am finding it hit or miss--some which document sources, some you have no idea where the info came from.

    I have used Wikipedia quite a bit as an initial source.

    RE: Books--wherever possible, I'm buying my books on Kindle now. Unfortunately, at least at this point in time, there are many historical reference texts in e-book format. But I'm curious--if you download e-book reference texts, how do you make a citation, since, at least with Kindle, you don't know what page you're on?

    BK Jackson
    http://www.bkjackson.blogspot.com

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  11. Jordan sounds like the fun house on the block.

    Experience... you can't beat that as a resource.

    Education... also great (I am often extra happy I took those extra forensics, bones, geology, and other science classes.)

    All of the resources you guys mentioned were awesome and some I haven't gotten to yet.

    The internet has other really cool resources too... crazy videos and video interview for when you just don't know someone and can't get in the middle of it like Jordan. Now I have done some high-speed work with motorcycles and cars, on and off road and I work on them mechanically and have some knowledge... I have a samurai trained monster fighter whose day-job is racing rally cross. I don't do rally cross, but know someone who does- Tanner Foust.

    Here is where the internet rules. They have cameras inside and outside of the cars so you can see how the cars handle and how the drivers handle them. You can also score video with Tanner explaining the set up of his car and where things are and why (like the fan- for the engine- is in the trunk, not the front on his car), what his controls and gages are, etc. You can even catch video of him explaining a bit of detail on jumps, what he looks for, how he evaluates and corrects, etc...
    The internet offers access to experts and expert knowledge that we can't always get a hold of in a polite way - LOVE IT!

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  12. Chaco reminded me of the importance of video. Thanks for the tip, CK.

    That reminded me of my upcoming YA. I had to research mountain climbing - Denali in Alaska. I lived in AK for 10 yrs, but a friend of mine had climbed Denali, twice. Besides his expert help, I watched videos on youtube and vimeo. So many people record procedures & tips on techniques, like crevasse rescues. They also recorded actual climbs from start to finish. Amazing footage.

    Cops & firemen training videos are online too.

    The crimescene loop I belong to is called crimescenewriter on yahoo groups. It's public so query it and send an email to get signed on,per the instructions you'll find. Wally Lind is the retired crime scene analyst who started it, I believe. Wally has been mentioned in countless author acknowledgments, but there are many more experts who help there now.

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  14. I do of course use the web rather a lot for research. But in addition to the web, and the hidden internets, and the SETI transmissions that come into my home via the copper antennae array hidden in the trees in my backyard I also rely heavily on my Uncle Finnigan, cuz he's Irish and knows stuff. Especially after a few pints. Whiskey opens the “hidden” webs of knowledge.

    A typical Finnigan search would go something like this:

    Me - “Uncle Finnigan, can you help me with this portion of my book?”

    Finn - “Certainly nephew, my brain is like a sieve through which all things enter, get filter out, and drain happily into the bowl of your quest for knowledge.”

    Me - “Huh?”

    Finn - “Ask away boyo.”

    Me - “Okay, where did soccer get its name?”

    Finn - “Well nephew, it’s like this you see. The first American football was made way back during the revolutionary war, you know, the one where we kicked England’s butt for the first time. You see, the troops at Valley Forge were getting bored and the cold weather necessitated doing a lot of movement in order to stay warm. They had gotten into the habit of running around in a big flat field in order keep their body heat up.”

    Me- “Really?”

    Finn - “Quite.” Slugs down his whiskey and refills. “So anyway, they were getting tired of doing jumping jacks and in place running or playing simple tag all day long. They wanted to change up their PT sessions a bit, but couldn’t figure out how. Then, low and behold, a patrol of US Marines detached to them gets ambushed by the redcoats. Naturally, the Marines kicked their collective lobster-back butts and in the process one of the British officers lost his boots, both of them. They had been blown off from his feet obviously because there were tears all over them, but luckily for the British officer, no bits of foot. The Marines, upon securing the area of the scuffle found the boots and took them back as a trophy.”

    Me - “Uh, is this in the history books?”

    Finn - “Certainly, somewhere. So they get back to camp and that Marine Sergeant, an Irishman by the way, his name was O’Malley, in charge of the squad looks at all those Army and militia soldiers out playing tag in the field and says; ‘My fellow leathernecks, it looks like those there soldier boys needs something to make their game more focused and such, do we have a ball or some kind of similar implement with which they can play?’ A very bright Corporal, by the name of Hogan, chimed up.
    “Sergeant,” he said, “We haven’t got a ball, but we do have these boots from the English officer. We could make the leather into a ball of sorts.’
    “The Sergeant looks at him and says, ‘Well you just see to it then, Corporal Hogan.’ And the Corporal does just that. But it turns out that a bit of shrapnel had torn the boots up pretty badly and the Corporal, while being an incredibly intelligent young man, was not exceptionally skilled in the art of leatherwork. In the end he came out with a ball that was egg shaped rather than round. It worked nonetheless and the boys in the field had a great time.”
    “’What shall we call this game?’ asked one of them. ‘Well since the ball was made from the boot of that English officer we should call it bootball.’ Said one of them, ‘Ah! What are you thinking man?’ said another, ‘We should pay tribute to the poor English officer who lost his boots and had to walk across this half frozen ground unshod, probably freezing those bootless feet. It should be called football!’ and the name stuck.
    “One of the soldiers then asked as an aside, ‘I wonder what kind of games them English play?’ to which the Marine Sergeant replied, ‘That officer has got nothing but his socks on, so whatever game it may be, the English will have to call it socker!” and that name stuck too.”

    Me - “Just where did you get this nugget of history?”

    Finn - “Hidden webs boyo. Secret sources of the ancients.”

    Me - “Wow...your so smart.”

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  15. Oh...by the way...if anyone wants a free book there's one day left in my "Faithful Warrior Giveaway" at "The Big Thrill". Click the link and scroll down to Faithful Warrior to sign up for the drawing. Or click here to go straight to the entry itself.

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  16. Basil---You just wrote a new book in your comment: Interview With Uncle Finn.

    I promise not to tell anyone about the SETI antennae. (I always knew it was there. And you claim to be radio announcing. SURE! You and Uncle Finn!)

    It must be the Alaskan air . . .

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  17. Jordan---Funny story I agree with Chaco. I want to hang out at your house.

    Terry Lynn and BK---GREAT STUFF. Thank you.

    Wow. What a group of talented writers. No wonder your books ROCK!!

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  18. That list looks similar. I think someone from North Carolina must have discovered similar information when they were putting together that section on my computer course. LOL!

    Anyway, those are all good advice. I would recommend one more thing: simply search your source in Google. There is a "site:" keyword that allows you to search for websites that reference other websites. Those that are most authoritative will have the most links.

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  19. Kathy and KZers. Please see below. I am a faithful Killzoner and offer the following to serious writers. I find it fun and hope to trade expertise with accomplished writers.
    Medical Expertise - reference/review/collaboration. 25 yrs exp ER MD level one trauma, expansive medical knowledge, familiarity. Inject your work w reality, assure credibility. Explore the medical plausibility of story line possibilities, med characters and more. Approachable and informal.
    Can accomplish via e-mail/phone tjc(tom) 763 557 5049 (phone to be cancelled soon...going all cell)

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  20. Excellent post! Joe's research web page is very helpful when you're looking for resources. Whenever I'm chasing down something I've heard about, I always check out snopes (http://www.snopes.com/), just to make sure the report isn't an urban legend.

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  21. Daniel, TJC and Kathryn---excellent contritutions to the list. Thank you!

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