do you google?

I'll bet you do – I use Google a lot myself. It's a great tool for finding images or information quickly. But – what about when you are looking for material for a biology assignment, or to broaden your knowledge on a particular topic?

This is an issue I work through each year with my first-year students, as they're looking for information for their bio essays. They really should start by using our library databases, of course, but an awful lot of them do love googling for material. And that's OK but it has its limits.

I mean, look at this example. I've just typed the phrase 'greenhouse gases' into the search box on Google – it came up with 1,750,000 web links. (Type in 'autism' & you'll see a staggering 16,000,000 sites!) Where to start? How can I decide which of those is going to give the information I'm wanting? Which sites can I rely on? How can I narrow the search down?

OK, one thing you could do is look for sites with .edu, .govt, or .ac in their url, as these are going to be linked to universities or government departments, & so you would anticipate that the information they offer is reliable. This can certainly be helpful, as the basis for finding out more about the topic & tracking down the original scientific research.

Or you could be more specific in your search string: entering 'greenhouse gases' and 'dairy industry' & 'methane' will get you 159,000; still a huge number of files and again, very likely to be variable in quality.

Or – you could go straight to the scientific articles that are going to be the basis of information on those edu. sites. Try that same search string – 'greenhouse gases' 'dairy industry' methane – in Google Scholar. Just now it came up with 2760 possibilities, all of them scholarly publications that have been through some form of peer review process before being published. (Still too many, but adding more detail to that string will cut the numbers down further.) So you know their reliabilty & accuracy have been assessed before they're put out there for people to read.

Many of the science bloggers I read use the term 'University of Google' when they're describing how someone has got their information – and they aren't being particularly polite when they do so. The internet's so big (& unregulated) & there's so much information out there, that it's all too easy to get lost or to cherry-pick stuff that sounds good but has no real weight to it. Using library databases, or the 'Scholar' option on Google if you're an avid googler, narrows things down and helps you find the valuable stuff. Yes, you've still got to read & assess it, weigh up what you're finding, see how it fits with other sources of information, & write that essay – but that's a whole new post topic!

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