When high-school students are asked to do ‘research’ on the Internet, they typically Google the topic, visit a few sites, and using the magic of cut-copy-paste, finish the project in a jiffy. Many a time, the students do not even read what they have pasted. If the school insists on handwritten submissions, which many still do in this electronic age, children then passively copy down information. Even as high-schoolers mature into college-goers, many continue to hold on to a skewed understanding of what research on the Net entails. While many associate the term ‘research’ with ‘serious work’ done by scientists wearing lab coats or scholars who pore over tomes, they continue to rely on the cursory cut-paste version when they have to glean information from the Net. But what exactly does doing research on the Net entail? And who is entitled to do it? The following scenario illustrates how Neha learnt to do relevant research, albeit the hard way.
In Class XI, Neha had to do a group project for her biology class. The topic for her group was lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. Neha and her peers spent an afternoon browsing the Net. Each of them read up two to three sites and jotted down bits of information. The team then created a Power Point Presentation for their class by putting in information each of them had gleaned. They also inserted visuals they downloaded from the Net. Their project was done in a couple of hours. In the process, Neha understood that lymphoma affected the lymph nodes and impairs one’s immune system. She didn’t really pay much attention to the other details or verify the information that her friends had noted down.
Ironically, about a month later, Neha’s mother was diagnosed with blood cancer. After going through an agonising period of testing and a first round of treatment, medical opinion on her mother’s case was divided, as her symptoms were atypical. The family was confused on what course of treatment to follow. Neha immediately started scouring the Net, reading all she could about the various types of blood cancer. She checked established medical sites, verified whether the information was accurate by cross-checking with other sites, and also read many anecdotal reports of how people with blood cancer fared. For two weeks, Neha spent at least two hours a day reading up on the prognosis of blood cancer and the side-effects of various treatments. Even though the family was obviously not consulting Neha on the course of treatment, she felt more in control as she understood what the doctors were saying. Thankfully, after exploring a couple of treatment options, her mother’s cancer was under control.
In the first instance, when Neha was working on her school project, we cannot really say she was doing research, even though the assignment mandated it. However, when her mother was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition, the impetus for Neha to understand all she could about it was extremely high. As a result, she investigated the topic systematically, checking and cross-checking facts till she felt she had gained at least a basic understanding of blood cancer. Further, she read anecdotal reports to see how people’s actual experiences compared with what she had gleaned from the medical sites. She realised that by entering related but different keywords, the search results would throw up different sites. While Neha is by no means an expert on blood cancer, we can say that she has done research this time.
So while doing research is within most people’s grasp, especially given the ubiquitous access to information on the Net, we have to ensure that we are actively engaged through the entire process. Foremost, we need to remember that there is a lot of material on the Net of dubious credibility. Thus, it is essential that we verify the information and also check the authenticity of the site we are referring to. We also need to ask whether the site in question has vested interests in sharing some information. For example, a site may proclaim that a particular treatment is particularly effective for a disease, and you later realise that the site is sponsored by a drug company or an alternative medicine clinic.
We also have to be wary when sites on the Net claim, ‘Research indicates that XYZ is better than ABC.’ The moment you see the word ‘research,’ you should up your antennae. Who has done the research? Has it been published in a peer-reviewed journal? Can you access the original article to further critique the methods of the study? While you definitely will not have the background knowledge to critique papers across disciplines, you can at least assess whether the cited research paper is credible.
Next, we must also verify information that we read on the Net. Browsing five to six sites should give you a feel of a topic. When you find that information in one site contradicts others, you need to put on your detective hat again to establish the authenticity of the information. Most researchers give their contact details on the papers they publish. So, if you have questions, you may want to email the person. Of course, while it is not guaranteed that you will get a response, there is no harm in shooting an email to check.
Finally, if you are interested in doing actual research that helps in the advancement of knowledge, then a Net search is only the first preliminary step. But learning how to do that thoroughly will hold you in good stead before honing in on a topic to research further.