Friday, May 29, 2009

Five Keys to Investigative Searching

When it comes right down to it, there aren't a lot of techniques involved in investigative searching. As opposed to speculative searching--what we tend to do most of the time--investigative searching involves clear clues and places to look for information about credibility.

In speculative searching, we're not sure where to look (Google is the default) and what keywords we need to retrieve the information we are looking for.

The goals of investigation are clear: find and evaluate the author, find and evaluate the publisher, find and interpret the meaning of the date, find evidence and evaluate it for accuracy, objectivity and external verification. You don't need to collect all this information unless the stakes for using information are high (like your job depends on it or you'll be punished if you plagiarize or violate fair use). Most of the time, checking a few facts is enough.

It may be helpful to think about investigative search techniques as depending on careful reading and four other keys. Nothing takes the place of reading thoughtfully. Still, the tendency of students is to go as fast as possible, thereby overlooking important information and clues about credibility. I'd say that's the biggest problem and why students trust false information.

The rest of the problem, as I see it, is that students aren't taught some basic techniques. These are the four keys I'm referring to:

Queries [Enter Key]

Using a search engine to track down missing information and check its credibility is the most powerful tool in the investigator’s kit. Depending on the information you need, the database you search will vary. For most queries, Google is preferred. But if you need to look up the registered owner of a website—to find the publisher or someone to contact—that requires a different database: If you need to find a list of pages that link to the page you are investigating, then Yahoo is preferred, as it returns more information than Google with the link: command.

There are keyword queries, when you need to check the facts about a person, a publisher or something an author wrote in a web page. If you can’t find information to back up an author’s claim, that lends no support to its credibility. Sometimes, you’ll find that other people have information that contradicts the author you are investigating. This is all part of triangulating: finding information from multiple sources that agrees. When that happens, there’s a better chance the information can be trusted.

There are also string queries. This is when you copy a portion of text and search for the exact phrase in a database. You may place quotes around a passage, but it’s not necessary. Quotes work best around a first and last name or a short phrase. By searching for a string, you will often find other instances of the article or person you are investigating. The other instance may contain additional information you need. You may also discover that the passage you are investigating was plagiarized: copied word for word without being cited.

Truncation [Backspace]

The URL is an important source of information. It can reveal the publisher’s name or whether the site is self-published by the author. Truncation is a good way to navigate toward the root of the site you are investigating. Not all the information you need may be found on a web page, but a directory page may contain important clues such as an author’s name, a publisher or the date an article was written. You truncate by removing parts of the URL with the backspace or delete key, starting from the right and stopping when you reach a folder marker (/).

Browsing [Left Click]

Browsing is a special kind of reading: paying attention to hyperlinks. Normally when you browse you are looking for words or images that stand out. On a web page, browsing is defined by the links you click. Think of successful browsing as a game of HOT and COLD. You are trying to use links to get you closer to information you need, though you’re not exactly sure where that information is hiding. Whenever you click a link you have to scan or read the new page to discover whether you are getting hotter or colder. If you seem to be getting colder, go back and try a different link or technique. If you are getting hotter you will discover keywords and clues that you can use in your investigation.

Page Information [Right Click]

If you are using a browser that provides page information (Firefox does this) you can right-click on a web page to bring up a menu that includes Page Information. Depending on how the web page was coded, information about the last time the page was updated may be provided. If the last updated information is ‘now’ then the coding on the web page doesn’t allow this information to be shown. Knowing the last update of a page can be helpful in determining the age of the material.

This is obviously only an introduction to the techniques, but with them you should be able to solve this challenge:

Who is the author of the Sellafield Zoo?

Challenge Level: Intermediate (Don't forget careful reading!)

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