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Finding Reliable Online Sources for Scientific Information

We all know that the Internet is a spectacular resource for information to help in our scientific studies.  We also know that not everything on the Internet is of equal value, reliability, and accuracy.  Anyone can purchase a domain and put up dubious information as fact, either to push an agenda or sell a product, just as easily as a highly-reputable research journal or funding agency can put up thoroughly tested and verified data. Do a web search for metabolism, and you are as likely to have pages from diet supplement sales companies as you are pages with information on metabolism from medical school scientists.

So, how does a college student know what to look for when searching the Web for scientific information?  Here are some hints.

1. Look at the domain.  You want to be sure there is little chance for bias.  If a nice looking report making impressive claims comes from a ".com" domain, understand that ".com" stands for "commercial" and the main intent of the article may not be to report unvarnished science but instead to sell products.  How unbiased is the science presented?  That is the problem with a .com - you can't tell.  It is better to use information that cannot be called into question.  Likewise, some ".org" ("organization") sites might be of questionable reliability.  Some ".org" domains are clearly trustworthy and can be relied upon to give excellent information.  Examples would be the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (www.hhmi.org) or the American Heart Association (www.heart.org/HEARTORG/).  But there are also organizations that are clearly promoting an agenda through their ".org" sites and may selectively choose their content for that purpose.  

More trustworthy domains generally would be .edu (research conducted at a university), .gov (reports from government-supported research - see "www.usa.gov" below), or .org if the research is conducted by a research-oriented and unbiased organization like those mentioned above.

2. Start with some databases and search engines that focus on good stuff.  Here are some examples:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/.  This is a collection of research articles on biology and medicine housed at the National Library of Medicine.  For more information on how to use PubMed, try these links:


 This site provides database search for all government documents and reports.  These would include documents from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, USDA, EPA, CDC, NASA, and a multitude of other units that conduct research on life science projects.

http://scholar.google.com.  Whereas Google indexes all sorts of important and unimportant pages that could be listed in a search for a scientific term, Google Scholar centers on scholarly articles from respected researchers and organizations.

Finally, we always suggest you spend time with your college's Research Librarian to learn about database search engines available at your school.  Research Librarians appreciate the opportunity to teach students how to use resources they manage for improving your educational experience. Nothing like having the experts help you find valuable info!

By using these tips you should be able to conduct effective literature searches to find helpful and trustworthy information to help in your science courses.

You may be asked to complete a quiz over this material.