3.29.2016

You Better Think Twice

When you are doing research for a nonfiction book, many times you will find yourself going online rather than visiting a library. While books usually cannot be accessed on the web, plenty of media and professional articles are posted for free. This very availability, however, should make you pause.

The problem is, anyone can spout off their views online. This was the issue Wikipedia faced in its early days; how could it possibly match up against the Encyclopedia Britannica? Yet because Wikipedia also allows anyone to edit its entries, that has provided a useful cross-check system. I don’t necessarily believe everything I read there, but the list of footnotes at the bottom of the page provides some reassurance of professional accuracy.

Many other articles I have read are not subject to review. This lack of scrutiny invites abuse. Anyone with a doctorate can post whatever they like online—with the “Ph.D.” affixed to the banner at the top of the page. Most lay readers will accept that as accreditation. How are you supposed to know?

Compare this open-ended system to an article written by a college professor and submitted to a professional journal. The journal selects top people in the field to read and critique that article before the journal will accept it for publication. Forget about going on a crusade. If even one fact is questioned, you’d better have a source to back it up.

In lieu of such checks and balances, you’re wise to double-check any article from which you’d like to take a quotation. This is particularly true if other articles on the same topic report conflicting findings. You can’t just go with the guy who supports your view.

For instance, let’s say that intuitively I feel that long-range drug therapy must be detrimental to developing young minds. If I find an author who has published multiple articles on the links of Ritalin to violent young men, I’m nodding my head: yes, here we go. But to be on the safe side, I stop to run up the guy’s name, call him X, with the query: “other scientists’ views of X.” If his name comes up on Quackery.com, you better believe I’m going to read that article. Maybe the author has a doctorate, but he’s never been granted a license to practice psychiatry. Maybe his articles have never been accepted in a peer-reviewed journal.

You know what? I’ve just saved myself from the scorn of every knowledgeable professional in the field. Those are the people that an editor might check before accepting my submission. They’re the ones a reviewer would love to find after reading my book. So, do yourself a favor. In the Wild West frontier that is internet research, be like a monk and stick to the rigorous course of truth.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
― Neil Gaiman

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine






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