Internet research

From Academic Kids

Internet research is the practice of using the Internet for research. To the extent that the Internet is widely and readily accessible to hundreds of millions of people in many parts of the world, can provide practically instant information on most topics, and emerged only in the last 10 years, it is having a profound impact on the way in which ideas are formed and knowledge is created.

Research is a broad term. Here, it is used as in "looking it up (on the Web)". It includes any activity where a topic is identified, and an effort is made to actively gather information for the purpose of furthering understanding (no matter how trivial-seeming the subject). Common applications of Internet research include personal research on a particular subject (something mentioned on the news, a health problem, etc), students doing research for academic projects and papers, and journalists and other writers researching stories. It should be distinguished from scientific research - research following a defined and rigorous process - that is carried out on the Internet, also from straightforward finding of specific info, like locating a name or phone number (and it does not refer to, research about the Internet).

Prior to the Internet, and particularly, the World Wide Web, print - books, magazines, newspapers, and other printed publications - was the primary source of in-depth information in the most of the world. In print, the book is the basic research unit. Consulting one or more books on a topic was the usual research method for most people.

Compared to the Internet, print physically limits access to information. A book has to be identified, then actually obtained. On the Net, the Web can be searched, and typically hundreds or thousands of pages can be found with some relation to the topic, within seconds. In addition, email (including mailing lists), online discussion forums (aka message boards, BBS's), and other personal communication facilities (instant messaging, IRC, newsgroups, etc) provide direct access to experts and other individuals with relevant interests and knowledge.

The Internet also presents an alternate body of knowledge to the traditional print library resources, because much of the content is different. Internet resources have similar (or "the same") information as print sources, but they generally do not simply reproduce print content. Although books are nowadays produced using a digital version of the content, for most books such a version is not available on the Internet. On the other hand, thousands of books and other print publications have been made available online that would be extremely difficult to locate otherwise, including out-of-print books, and classic literature and textbooks that would be much less accessible in their printed form.

As the Internet continues to expand, Internet research may become the predominant method of informing ourselves. More people will form ideas based on what they believe is their active "research" ("looking it up", "reading up about it"), rather than relying on more-or-less passively (environmentally) acquired information (the daily news, "someone told me about", "saw an article on").

Contents

Questions and notes

  • What is the scope and quality of online information? (e.g. On a practical level, given a range of everyday subjects, what is the difference between the available info found by visiting a fair-sized library, and on the Web?)
  • Trusted sources: how can sources, like individual Web sites, and specific info be vetted? (eg. Wikipedia)
  • What effect does keyword searching (combined with instant access) have on the way topics are defined and information located?
    • What is the impact of search engine algorithms for determining relevance (which pages are returned in what order)? What about the presence of sponsored (for a fee) results that are prioritized? What about unannounced manipulation of search results to put certain results forward (e.g. optimizing Web pages to produce better search result rankings)?
  • Facts and figures: What percentage of "essential" texts are available online? What materials are available only online (eg: full text of out-of-print books)? How has the (non-fiction) print publishing business been affected by the Net?
  • How have people's active research habits been changed (seeking specific info, vs passive "research" from, for example, current media and casual conversation)?
  • What effect is the availability of Internet research having on regular people (not students, professional researchers, etc) - are people feeling more empowered? Putting more thought into things? Is the level of expectation for factual presentations (eg: the nightly news) affected?
  • Is the relative impermanence of a "link" as a source particularly relevant on any level (for example, a referenced book may be made unavailable, but presumably a copy exists somewhere, and can be located, whereas if a web site vanishes, it may be next to impossible to locate it again; in some cases, the link/site may be like the only existing copy of a book...)?

Credibility

While the Internet contains a virtually-unlimited wealth of information not found in traditional resources, this abundance also may hinder academic research. Anyone can make a website for little or no cost and publish to the world. This bypasses the usual publishing channels and allows opinions to be expressed which may not be credible. Tradition sources may be considered more authoritative on the whole by some for this reason. On the other hand, this widespread publishing ability gives nearly-immediate access to the myriad views of both the average person and the professional world without the limited scope or bias which may be found in books and newscasts.

In general, a major way to find whether an online source is credible is to determine how popular and authoritative the source is. If the site has a well-respected offline counterpart such as the New York Times or CBS, the site will be as credible as the original. For websites and authors which have little popularity, one must consider the credentials of the source -- if those are available and valid. Even though a website may be written in a professional or academic manner, the lack of a central body to determine its credibility may be a prohibitive factor for serious research.

Methodology

There are a number of research methodologies and theoretical approaches that are recommended for Internet Research including:

  • Visual ethnography
  • Content analysis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Statistical sampling
  • Survey research
  • Action research
  • Marxist approaches
  • Habermasian (public sphere approaches)
  • Feminist research

Internet research ethics

Internet research ethics is becoming more important now that Institutional Research Boards (IRBs) are having to approve research in Universities.

Broadly speaking there are the following ethical approaches

1. Consequentialist (or utilitarian) ethics

2. Deontological ethics

3. Ethics of care

4. Virtue ethics

5. Open source ethics

References

Some useful reference texts are:

Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern Moral Philosophy. Philosophy, 33.

AoIR. (2001). Ethics Working Committee: Preliminary Report for Ethics, from http://aoir.org/reports/ethics.html

Berry, D. M. (2004). Internet Research: Privacy, Ethics and Alienation - An Open Source Approach. The Journal of Internet Research, 14(4).

Boehlefeld, S. (1996). Doing the Right Thing: Ethical Cyber Research. The Information Society, 12(2)(2).

Ess, C. (2001). Internet Research Ethics, from http://www.nyu.edu/projects/nissenbaum/projects_ethics.html

Jones, S. (1999). Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net. London: Sage.

King, S., A. (1996). Researching Internet Communities: Proposed Ethical Guidelines for the Reporting of Results. The Information Society, 12(2)(2).

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