I am a librarian.
What this means, besides being a familiar and famous quote from The Mummy (1999) starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, is that I have extensive formal education in Doing Research. Sure, I will google something like “What’s the name of that character actor who’s always Mafia Goon Number Two” or “When was Benjamin Banneker’s birthday,” because those are immediate facts that can be revealed in a simple search. But Google is stratified based on Search Engine Optimization and advertising money, and sometimes answers that are more complex get lost beneath the ads and keywords.
What does this mean for the average person Doing Their Own Research?
It means you can certainly get an answer to your question, but you might not get the right answer, or even all of the right information, especially if you’re clicking on the first link of your results or even staying on the first page. I’m not going to say that nothing available to read on the free web is correct when you’re doing advanced, in-depth research on complex topics. But a lot of the things you’re going to find, especially if you’re unaware of your own confirmation bias, are only going to answer the question in the way you expect them to.
Over the past two years, we’ve gone from “that will never reach the U.S.” to “It’s just like a bad flu” to “social distancing” to “wear your mask” to “get vaccinated” to “everythingisfinedog.jpg” — and at every step of the way, people opposed to following mandates or even just CDC or WHO recommendations have announced their intention to Do Their Own Research. Plenty of us have asked “what does that even mean”? Also: what kind of research are you doing that these extensively educated scientists have not? (We can talk a different time about how education does not indicate sense, as we watch people with MDs, JDs, PhDs, and other degrees completely jump the shark.)
Well, if you really want to do your own research and not just validate your reasons for not doing something, here are some tips for getting to the scientific or policy-related information you’ll need. Authoritative information.
Use Your Library Card — Or Get One
There are multiple options for research at the libraries in your community. Anything from a public library to the local universities, community colleges, and even some specialized libraries will offer access to their online databases, which are much more easily updated than printed publications. These databases, like PubMed and Web of Science, will include medical papers announcing findings on studies that have been done outside the political arena, before the findings might have been used to decide policy.
Even if you don’t have access to libraries with deep enough pockets to acquire science-specific journals, it’s likely they’ve been maintaining a repository of COVID-specific information for people in your area. ProQuest in particular has a COVID-dedicated collection that they’ve offered to institutions. But you can also use what’s been made available to you — even the smallest regional libraries should have at least some version of a database package with general authoritative information. And if they don’t, move on to the next option.
Know Your Sources
Once upon a time, when I was learning the basics of information literacy instruction, the free web was not quite at the level of wild wild west that it is now. It was likely that if you ventured onto a website with a .org suffix, it was a reliable resource for valid information. Nowadays, anyone can establish a .org site and put whatever they want on it, whether it is truth or fake news.
So you have to do a little more research to know exactly who is giving you that information. What organization (and you usually want something maintained by an organization) is behind it? Are they a credible organization, maybe an organization of neuroscientists? Or something like the Mayo Clinic? You can also rely on a .gov site to give you exact policy information, or if you are looking for studies and findings from places like the National Institutes of Health or MedLine Plus. All of this won’t always be peer reviewed like the journal articles in the research databases, but it will offer information provided with good intent.
If You Must, Use Google Scholar
Google Scholar (scholar.google.com, since it doesn’t just appear as one of the filtering options anymore) will gather articles, mostly peer-reviewed, that have been made available on the free web as part of open access journals and repositories. Much of this information goes through the same process as those on something like Web of Science, but is provided at no cost to readers. Much more scientific information has found its way to the open access market in recent years, as academics and other researchers have found issues with the massive paywall academic journals and databases fling up. These, you might also have to do further research on — who is writing them? What is their background? What are the responsibilities of the publication when selecting papers and writers? The lack of paywall often indicates that these journals and repositories were started as passion projects or school projects, meaning there are fewer steps that a paper might go through. So use your results in Google Scholar, but read closely, read the citations, and verify your information.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to believe. Science is ever changing, and comparing research from even six months ago to what might be published tomorrow in order to form any kind of gotcha moment isn’t the way science and science writing works. Try to read the most recent information, acknowledging the past layers of research done to reach those conclusions. And always read prepared to acknowledge the biases of the writer as well as your own.
Trust the person who has been teaching Information Literacy to college and high school students, librarians and library staff, and the general public for over a decade: there are ways to find verifiable, authoritative information on scientific research and both domestic and international policy. You just have to know where — and where not — to look.
Just, whatever you do, don’t be this guy. Your librarian will thank you.