In my last article I mentioned the importance of doing research and reading up on things. There is such a huge amount of information hitting us from all angles everyday. This goes for all things not just health information. Because of this, it can be hard to know when we are getting quality information. Some outlets have their own innate bias’ and integrity issues, and couple that with the demand for speedy media response times we can begin to see that we may not always get all the facts or the correct information at all. Below are some considerations and 7 tips to use when in search of information, whatever the subject.
A big issue when trying to understand a new topic involving numbers or science is when to use scholarly resources. Scholarly resources are often the gold standard for obtaining quality information. Because the people writing these articles are held to a higher standard of writing quality, these sources are often superior to those that are posted on a website, like Wikipedia. In addition, many researchers make their living performing studies. The more articles they publish the more likely they are to receive grants and other forms of finance for continued research. Scholarly sources are often peer-reviewed too.
Articles can often go through the peer revision process multiple times, and if the panel deems that it is lacking as a credible source, it is rejected for corrections. The panel wants to further the body of literature, and they do this by allowing studies to be published involving new ideas or perspectives and duplicated studies. This process is one of the main reasons scholarly resources are better for gleaning information from when compared to other sources. These articles are also painstakingly written to be objective in nature as an attempt to reduce intrinsic bias’. Be aware that these author’s are human too, and sometimes unwanted bias can still be a part of these resources.
We can see implications research commonly in health care. Many health care professions (Doctors, PTs, Nurses, etc.) work very hard to only preform procedures that are backed up by scientific studies.
Peer Review – This is a process where a group of fellow experts in a given field read and review an article up for publication. They look for statistical errors, reviewer bias in study design and drawn conclusions, and anything else that might make the information contained less credible. If they find enough issues, they will reject it and offer recommendations for improvement.
My writing is for the most part subjective. While I will present data stemming from the studies I do on myself, they are not as powerful as the scholarly research indicated above. My studies can be referred to as anecdotal evidence. This means that the information comes straight from my experiences. The more people that are a part of a given study translates to greater ability to generalize the results to the population as a whole. Take my weight loss and weight gain studies as examples. Based on being a young male I may have a greater ability to quickly lose and gain weight than say a male that is older and more differently still when compared to that of an older woman. Not everyone can copy what I have done and produce the same results because there are so many differences between us.
So we know a little bit about the differences between scholarly and non-scholarly resources. This brings me to my first consideration for all resources, being skeptical.
If something sounds to good to be true…it probably is! I saw an advertisement on a fellow blog site claiming I could lose 20 pounds in 3 weeks with their program. So I asked myself if I had ever dropped 20 pounds in 3 weeks, and felt good at the end. I have not, and I would not hesitate to say most people have not done this either. So do I believe it? Most experts agree that weight control either way, loss or gain, is best at a rate of 1 pound per week. This is a really good example of how marketers tell us what we want to hear, use our emotions against us, and try to sell us a product or service.
I want to dive in a little deeper into the example above. The blog stated that it would allow a free download of a hand book for a program claiming I could lose 1 to 2 pounds a day. Upon some further exploration the book called the “The 4 Week diet” by Brian Flatt is claiming that he can help me prevail over my weight loss goals by being in charge of 4 hormones that control hunger and fat cell metabolism. While the hormones stated do have some control over our appetite and other bodily functions, it is not so simple bend to these hormones to our will. Check out the picture below. It is an image of all the known processes and cycles our bodies go through when using our food as energy. Hormones are involved in these processes, but it would be terribly difficult to determine how the hormones control appetite, to what extent, and how to actually change my lifestyle to affect them. There is so much interplay between hormones and other chemical structures that the picture looks blurry when zoomed in. It cannot even be read on my blog since there is so much text there! Being able to make those 4 hormones work in synergy every day for a month is ridiculous. If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.
I have input a hyperlink to the website where this interplay picture can be found. (Interactive Model of Metabolic Pathways) It is actually an interactive application that can be used to specifically select different cycles of the body. Please check it out. There might be some familiar words in there: glucose, vitamin-c, lactose, etc.
Complexity of Question
The next consideration relates to how deep I have to go to find what I am after. Not all questions or inquiries are created equal. Take for instance, wanting to know if I should wear my down parka or just a light jacket to school today. I can go right outside and check for myself, or I can ask my echo dot, “what is the weather today?” Either way this is pretty much a one and done question to figure out what I want to know.
Now, if I want to know the best way to lose weight, a significantly broader question, I am going to get tons of different opinions, experiences, and research if I ask this online. This question is much more complex owing to the fact that each person is different in their own right. What works for some may not work for others. When reviewing online sources for answers remember that the more complex the question is the more variation and the more time that must be spent to come up with an answer.
Tips for Better Searching
There are a few keystrokes and tips that can be used to narrow down search results or to make searching easier. Try these out along with the article to see how they work.
1. Use Several Sources
So if just typing questions into Google or popping over to Wikipedia is not the way to go, what is? Google and Wikipedia are good places to start if the topic is brand new, but keep in mind the goal here is to learn a few terms to better guide the search. If gaining knowledge was as easy as typing a question into Google everyone would have a PhD.
Since we know that there are places online that have poorer information, how do we get to good quality information? Being skeptical has led us to not believe anything we hear, so how do we know that anything is worth while online? Ever heard of two heads are better than one? Well if more people think the same thing online there is a greater chance that it is true. If a variety of sources indicate that 8 hours of sleep is healthy for us, it may be that for most people 8 hours is the way to go.
Using several sources is a good idea whether the resources are scholarly or not, but it may be more feasible to find similar points of view from non-scholarly sources.
2. Understand the Names of Websites
Often we can tell the credibility of websites by which extension follows its URL. These are called Top-Level Domains (TLD), and common ones are “.com”, “.gov”, and “.org”. Each of these extension stand for a larger word, and relate to the credibility of the source. Here is a list from the University of Iowa IT department outlining the most common ones:
.gov- Restricted for government use (this is the only restricted TLD)
.edu- educational use
.org- individual or organizational use
.com- commercial use (.co.uk is the commercial use indicator for the United Kingdom)
.net- network providers
.biz- business use
.info- informative website
Country codes: .ca (Canada), .cn (China), .us (United States)
The top three TLDs are usually the most credible. Either because they are tied to the credibility of an institution (.edu and .gov) or because they have a large body of people and editors working on one site (.org). The “.com” and “.net” are often more common, but can be less credible. While completely discrediting websites using a “.com” TLD is not necessary, that is the extension my site uses, understand that not all information on these sites is the best or even correct. When in doubt it is good to check a few other sources.
3. Plus and Minus Keys ( “+” and “-” )
The next two tips are keystrokes that I use almost every time I search. Using the plus and minus keys allows us to “add” or “subtract” words from our searches. Let us use an example. I am doing a search for “fruit juices” on Google. The second search result is from Wikipedia. Since fruit juice is a pretty basic idea, we are looking for a more informed source than Wikipedia. By typing in, “-Wikipedia”, the search engine will filter out all search results containing the attached word. Notice when I search again that the Wikipedia results disappear. This key can be found at the top of a 9-key number block on the right side of the keyboard or at the end of the numbers above the “qwerty” line. The plus key should be right next to the minus. This subtraction can be used as many times as the searcher wants, and the minus and plus keys can even be used together to really narrow the search. Here are all the search terms I used following “fruit juices”: “-apple -grape +beet -salad -cake -spray -grey -arusuvai -watermelon -yoga -youtube -facebook”. This left me with 5 search results 4 of them being PDF files to choose from about beets. When using this technique to narrow the search just remember to keep the sign (plus or minus) right next to the word being added or subtracted.
4. Use “Quotation marks”
The quotes act to keep the search engine looking for what was typed as a unit, and not searching for each word individually. Google does a pretty good job of keeping the words together in simple searches even if quotes are not used. When looking to correlate one thing with another, and each search inquiry has multiple words on each side of the “and” the engine can get confused. More on this later. First let us look at a simple example. Type the words ‘Blender’ and ‘bottle’ right next to each other in Google. Look at the images on the right. Most results are for the popular water bottle with the metal ball inside, but there will still be one or two results from different things. I got a result for a blender called Blendjet, and another type of water bottle. Now, if quotes are used around both words, “blender bottle”, the results are filtered to show only the branded water bottle. Using quotes will become more important when using the technique in the next tip.
5. Use Boolean
*The quotation marks in this section of text are meant to illustrate what was typed into the search engine, and are not actually a part of the search.
Using Boolean type searches allows us to, much like the plus and minus keys, increase or decrease the search results we receive. Using the word “AND” between two words can be beneficial when looking for interactions between two things. It is also useful in preliminary searches to identify new search terms. Try using this search, “health AND nutrition”. There will be all kinds of blogs, websites, and government organizational websites. Now just use the words “health” and “nutrition” by themselves. Notice the number of results at the top; it will be biggest when “AND” is used. This will widen the search umbrella allowing more things to fall under it.
Using “OR” is nice when we are interested in both ideas equally. Let us say I want a recipe containing leafy green vegetables. I might search for “kale OR spinach recipes”; this will bring up a bunch of different recipes containing one or the other.
A search containing “NOT” between two words is helpful in later searches. Take for instance, when I want to learn how to increase muscle size (hypertrophy). I already know the role nutrition plays in size increases, but I want to know what other factors play a role as well. I might use the search terms “muscle hypertrophy NOT nutrition” This is a more targeted search. I know a little bit about my topic, but I want to find out more specifics. Of the three words, I use this one the least.
When search terms are more complex, often requiring two or more words to encompass the thought, quotation marks become more important. When I searched for “repetitive exercise AND stress fractures” without quotation marks I got 1,280,000 search results, the first one coming from “Webmd”. When I put this whole phrase into quotes, I only got 930 results and the first one was a .gov website.
Boolean – of, relating to, or being a logical combinatorial system (such as Boolean algebra) that represents symbolically relationships (such as those implied by the logical operators AND, OR, and NOT) between entities (such as sets, propositions,
or on-off computer circuit elements) (Merriam-Webster).
We will focus on this word’s definition in the context of internet searches. Basically Boolean searches, use AND, OR, or NOT in a search, and is a way to narrow or broaden search fields. This idea is based on a set of logical principles devised by a man named George Boole.
6. Read the Article the Correct Way
The first time I pulled up a scholarly article I was extremely confused. I had no idea how to read the darn thing. It took a little bit, but reading them is actually super easy. Like normal Western writing the lines are read from left to right, but they have a few other quirks to them. Often articles are written in column form. By this I mean there are 2-3 groups of text running vertically down each page. One must read the left most column from top to bottom first, before moving onto the next column to the right. Do not forget to check out any tables or figures mentioned in the text, they will supplement understanding.
7. Keep a List of Search Terms Used
This is a tip I got from one of my professors during undergrad. Thanks Justin! I was assigned a systemic review on a topic involving exercise. I picked exercise and aging. During his explanation of the assignment he implored me to keep a table of the search terms I used. In addition to the specific terms used, he suggested keeping tabs on the number of results per search, and to keep a summary of the sources I thought were useful. This was wonderfully helpful as systemic reviews require reading of many articles on similar subjects. It was very easy to confuse the articles with each other. Using this tip is a great way to stay organized when we have really complex questions to answer.
Boolean. (n.d.). (2018, October 8). Boolean. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Boolean
(n.d.). Healthy Live and Well. [Web page] Retrieved from https://livehealthyandwell.com/
Information Technology Services. (2017, Sept. 27). Understanding website names – what the three-letter extensions mean. [Web page] Retrieved from https://its.uiowa.edu/support/article/3717
Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics. (1994). Biochemical Pathways Map. [Web page] Retrieved from https://web.expasy.org/pathways/