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Researcher Beware!

Genevieve asked a great question Monday night: How does one verify the data reflected in mapping platforms?

In his answer, Steve Romalewski stressed that when examining any kind of data, critical thinking is essential. First, look at the metadata to see when the content was updated, look to see where the information came from, who gathered it, what it includes and, by extension, excludes.

Both Genevieve’s question and Steve’s answer underscore the importance of critical thinking and content transparency in the myriad digital tools we use everyday for research. There is often a false sense of security when searching online platforms that the content will be there and that it will be true. And if it’s not there, then it must not exist at all.

To some extent, it might not exist, online anyway. Take, for example, an online full text historical newspaper archive. While the platform may advertise a specific title as being in the full text, it doesn’t necessarily tell you that only select issues are available. The hapless researcher, plugging in keywords and getting nowhere might not be aware of that gap in coverage, and so gets…nothing. If she had known the inclusion dates of that digital archive, she might’ve known that while her online search might yield very little, a spin through a physical microfilm reel might prove enormously fruitful —  albeit a lot more time consuming.

As we increasingly rely on digital tools for research, sometimes to the exclusion of other resources, we must always be aware of the ways the resources are structured and the content they provide. With that knowledge, we’ll have much more manageable expectations of what can be found, how best to approach it for research, or whether someone is better off consulting another full text portal: the physical book.