EXPERT ADVICE

When It Absolutely Has to Be Accurate, Don’t Trust the Crowd

Computers have become more complex in recent years as demands on systems have continued to increase in size due to the amount of external devices, software, hardware and communication components. Technical professionals are depending more and more on the Internet, a blog or a peer whenever they need to research complex technologies. But in this digital age, when information is just a click away, how do you know what information can be trusted?

Few developers have the time to go to the library and search volumes of printed materials. So, the next logical source is the Internet. Entering a term or subject into a search engine is easy, and it may produce hundreds of informational sources, but are they factual? The problem is that anyone can publish on the Internet, and most tech workers don’t have the time to verify their findings. Here are several strategies to employ the next time you find yourself in this situation.

Strategy 1: Use More Than One Source

This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people only use one source of information. A ground rule that many scholarly journals and magazines employ is a minimum of two sources to verify each cited reference; of course, the more the better.

For example, perhaps your manager asked you to prepare a business case on why it is advantageous to upgrade to a more advanced piece of hardware or software. Where should you look for the information? In today’s fluid Web environment, the researcher needs to employ due diligence.

The accuracy of content is only as good as its contributors. Always use more than one source.

Strategy 2: Use the CARS Checklist

Informed decisions depend on a variety of factors. The CARS Checklist (Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, Support) is easy to use and is an invaluable aid to online researchers.

The 10-page article on this site can be perused in depth if you have the time. It advises such things as using your browser to see when a Web page was last modified and lists indicators on how to spot inaccuracies in your research. But if you’re in a hurry, jump to the Summary section which enumerates important points for each category.

  • Credibility. CARS urges the researcher to review the author’s credentials when deciding whether the source is trustworthy. For instance, if you’ve just been asked to research the validity of converting from a Windows-based system to Linux, you’ll want to be sure to quote the top experts in the industry, both pro and con.
  • Accuracy. CARS recommends ensuring the information is “correct, up to date, factual, detailed, exact and comprehensive.” For instance, even though a computer guru was at the top of his field regarding Windows 10 years ago, that doesn’t mean that he knows beans about Linux today.
  • Reasonableness. CARS asks that you consider whether the source is fair and objective. Is the source impartial on the subject of operating systems, or is he really trying to promote a certain product?
  • Support. CARS warns the technical professional to corroborate the information of the source. For example, if you’re quoting claims of fact and statistics to strengthen the viewpoint that Linux is a better operating system than Windows, then it’s a good idea to follow the information trail. Where did the information come from? Is contact information provided so that you can directly contact the source or author?

There are also other valuable Web research tips available at this site.

Strategy 3: Wikipedia

Wikipedia — you either love it or hate it. Most knowledge workers love it. But Wikipedia has been criticized for its inaccuracies despite the host of editors that are incessantly updating its contributors’ mistakes. It’s said that most of the information is correct, but keep in mind that no source is infallible, especially when written by anonymous contributors.

For example, in a January 2007 NewYorkTimes.com article, author Jonathan Dee cites an example whereby someone created a Wikipedia “stub” which he says is a “placeholder” that is often “one sentence in length.” Contributors then build upon the opening sentence or idea.

The particular stub that Dee cites in his article was about “the arrest of a half-dozen Muslim men supposedly planning to attack Fort Dix.” The stub entry was titled, “Fort Dix Terror Plot.”

Many other contributions and expansions were added, but a self-appointed editor, Matthew Gruen, “expanded and shaped” the account 59 times. Who is Matthew Gruen? Matthew Gruen is a junior in high school. The entry may or may not be accurate. Wikipedia personnel claim that inaccuracies will eventually be corrected, but do you really want to bet your next project on such data?

Strategy 4: Online Subscriptions

Online subscription sites offer a variety of technical, business and e-reference materials. If you find the need to quickly become the workgroup expert on JavaScript or Linux, then an online subscription may be for you. For instance, a subscription database can contain thousands of leading technical books.

To obtain information on a certain subject, the researcher types a phrase into a search box, clicks, and an entire list of books appear.

At the best sites, the material is available in multiple formats, including video. Study guides are also available on various topics to help technology professionals ready themselves for certification exams.

Strategy 5: White Papers

Many technical professionals tuck white papers into their arsenal when they need quick, in-depth knowledge on technologies in different markets. A recent entry of “white papers” typed into a popular search engine produced more than 4 million hits.

Many white papers are free and contain great information. A recent white paper found on Bitpipe.com; a technical library of white papers, product literature, webcasts and case studies, explained how to implement a master data management strategy.

However, it’s good to keep in mind that some white papers are used by businesses as a marketing or sales tool. Again, sift the good information from the hype by implementing CARS.

In the event that you’re the one who needs to write a white paper, there are also instructions available on the best way to approach such a task. For instance, writingwhitepapers.com will send a free chapter of Michael Stelzner’s book, Writing White Papers if you sign up for their newsletter. There’s also a blog and lots of free information on the Web site, including useful links such as Whitepapersource.com.

But remember, white papers aren’t necessarily searchable to the paragraph. You’ll have to go through a lot of them to find the exact information that is needed. A subscription database offers a faster and more exact response.

Online sources are a necessary and practical way to find information. The key to success is to filter out imprecise and outdated research. Knowing how to pull expert and relevant facts and figures from the Internet or a subscription service has several benefits. It’s convenient, increases productivity and saves time. Remember, this skill is not inconsequential. Your job or next project may depend on it.


Dennis Kilian is vice president of Safari Books Online, an electronic reference library for programmers, developers, IT, Web designers and the creative professional.


2 Comments

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Which review rating influences you most when researching a business?
Loading ... Loading ...

LinuxInsider Channels