“I’ve Done My Research.” But Have You?

Why an internet search is not research


William Iven@Upsplash


Every time someone says, with conviction and pride, “I’ve done my research,” I laugh out loud. What they really mean is, “I looked it up on the internet.” Calling that move “research” is like looking at someone’s driver’s license and believing you have the full measure of the person just because you know their name and address. Or asking a bunch of friends what they know about something and then taking whatever looney thing they say as fact.


Cruising the internet is not research; it’s simply looking something up in a very superficial and biased way, and that can be dangerous. Internet searches seem to make people think they are fully informed, knowledgeable and educated, but they are not.


Here’s why — an internet search takes your keywords and then swoops them past a wide range of websites looking for those words. Before it coughs up a list of websites with matching keywords (their links, that is), the search is filtered through an algorithm of your past searches. That algorithm then spits up a nonrandom list of sites designed specifically to interest you, and you alone. Sometimes having a service anticipate your likes and dislikes is great — walking into a coffee shop and hearing the bartista call out your usual order is friendly and comforting. And that’s what a search engine is also doing; it’s designed to gratify you, not educate you. These algorithms are used because the internet wants to sell you things and make you happy by echoing your already entrenched ideas and tastes. This is not research and you are not being informed.


Also, any list of links is skewed by all sorts of ways that web designers use to pop their particular link to the top of a keyword search. Often these “top” sites on the list are links that are the result of their machinations or sites that have already garnered many views, a self-perpetuating place holder that has nothing to do with the site’s veracity. Top sites often turn out to be garbage in terms of real information.


Also, in no way does an internet search ever provide both sides of an issue or the deep, broad, and historical layers of some subject. That list of links that lines up with great authority under your search pulls the reader into a plethora of possible places that sound official and credible but often turn out to be somebody’s soapbox, or a site designed to separate you from your money. Others are based on a singular personal experience, the musings of a hobbyist, or from a person who has lots of time on his or her hands. And oh-so-many websites simply repeat what other websites have stated, often in the same exact words, leading the reader into a party of plagiarism that leads nowhere.


All this is not research. It’s just an entertaining rabbit hole that makes people think they are getting at the real truth, but they are not. I know this because I do real research, and that word has a systematic process that results in solid and substantiated facts and information very far from what Google spews out.


There are two kinds of real research, the hands-on kind, and the library kind. The hands-on kind is called science, which means using the scientific method to address interesting questions. This process starts with constructing hypotheses (why does such and such happen, maybe it’s this or that) and then testing those possibilities by observation (for example, watching plants grow after altering their environment, noting peoples’ reactions to something, or tracking changes in cells under various conditions). Researchers take these data on a large number of subjects, so you know that whatever has been observed is not just a one-time event. A large subject pool, or observations on a smaller number of subjects but over a long period of time, means you can actually say something substantive and widely applicable about what you are noting, as in “Thirty-five percent of the 400 women we sampled said they like dogs” rather than “my Aunt Minnie likes dogs so all women must like dogs.”


Scientists also work in labs, manipulating chemicals, cells, genes, and other bits to measure biological reactions and effects. They, too, use large samples so there can be confidence in their conclusions, as in “We know there are variants in the Covid-19 line because we have sequenced the DNA of thousands of samples and we see the difference with our own eyes.”


The reliability of these kinds of research is based on three things: asking a good question, using a large sample size, and repetition to make sure those results hold up. Google simply can’t do this.


The real kind of research also takes a very long time. In the past, I did research on the behavior of female macaque monkeys and for that, I had to read everything ever written about macaques (yes, I did). And then I stood in the sun, rain, and snow, day after day, watching the animals and coding their behavior into categories, marking down every time they did anything and even noting when they did nothing. With those numbers gathered over oh-so-many months of quiet observation, I saw and recorded repeated patterns of their behavior and was, therefore, able to substantiate conclusions about female macaque behavior. It took years, and a lot of patience, but every act the animals did was a data point that stood behind what I might say about them as a gender, a group, and a species. Trust in my research was based on my observations gathered in the long term and with many animals. It was not my opinion, not my feelings about them, but what they did; I could point to those numbers and justify what I saw.


The other kind of research is library work, that is, digging deep and going into what has been written about a subject to understand fully its history and current status. And this is where internet aficionados think they find themselves, but they do not.


A search engine is not a library. It’s not even a book. The internet is just a sketchy index that doesn’t lead very far or very deeply. Some might think the internet contains every word ever written in human history, and therefore a credible source, but it does not. Even though web searches feel like one is diving into all of human knowledge, it’s a shallow dog paddle through a restricted universe and highly dependent on the whimsy of anyone who decided to make a website. This is not what happens in library research.


Here’s what real library research looks like: While working on a book based on a list of over 200 inventions that happened in Venice, Italy, I had to substantiate each invention before any reputable publisher would even take a look at my proposal. I did so by following every single lead to its source, walking through a long line of scholars who might have touched on that idea or subject before me. That meant many hours at a university library full of original manuscripts, peer-reviewed, and accredited journals, and books that were written long ago and not scanned and online. It meant I had to read the works of those who had first-hand knowledge of whatever I was researching. But you can’t just take the word of one person, and so I often looked at three or more sources for corroboration, and only then did I feel there was a factual basis for describing that invention, its inventor, and the date of its creation. Sometimes I’d even run across another resource as I crawled through the stacks, resources that are not online but extremely important to my work. The internet is not the library, and Chrome is not a trained librarian.


That firsthand approach also sent me into museums and to rare book rooms to see these objects for myself. I am here to tell you that a Google image of some ancient manuscript or historical object is no match for seeing that item right in front of you, sometimes holding it in your hands.


That’s not to say that the internet doesn’t have its place in library research. Libraries now have computer-based catalogs which have decreased the amount of time a researcher used to spend pawing through those little wooden drawers in search of some obscure reference. It can also be convenient to download a digitized book or article and avoid the trek to the library. That convenience, however, is offset by needing to read on a screen while trying to take notes or using up buckets of toner and sheaves of paper printing that item at home. So, the internet is very helpful for library research, but it not a substitute.


Today everyone is online, using searches like we used to use the phone book and the encyclopedia. Such searches can, in fact, work well for an introduction to a subject such as health issues, but they only work if you go to the most credible places — hospitals, professional associations, advocacy sites for a condition, or NIH.gov — which, in turn, should lead to articles in professional journals conducted by the people who do the real research.


We are all delighted to have this effortless and efficient tool for finding decent restaurants, opening hours of museums, buying shoes, or mapping a route to visit a friend. And turning to Wikipedia is always a treat because you can look up anyone or anything and get a summary. I use it myself when I come across, say, the name of, a Renaissance Venetian cartographer that I’ve never heard of because it suggests, or not, that I might look at him more seriously. And I let my students use it for a first glance when they choose a term paper topic but they, too, must go much further. Also, Wikipedia is crowdsourced and therefore subject to all kinds of crazy stuff. One day my daughter told me there was a Wikipedia page about me and I was stunned because I didn’t put it up. It had never occurred to me to do so. She then said there were all sorts of mistakes, such as the dates of my degrees, what I studied, and everything else, so she fixed it. My ghost author apparently didn’t bother to go to my university website, see my CV, read the articles and books listed there, or even email me to get the basic facts. Just like the internet in general, Wikipedia can be an entrée into research, but it is not research and not a credible reference.


Unfortunately, the internet makes everyone think they’ve done the work and in doing so, at-your-fingertips searches have turned the whole populace into know-it-alls spouting “I looked it up.” Many people also demand respect for “doing my research,” as if they have spent years in the field or the library, dedicating all their time to digging deep and collecting masses of data when all they’ve done is read a few posts.


Doing an internet search is not research, it’s just dabbling. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with dabbling as long as you don’t take what you read all that seriously.


Leave a Reply