Who Cares About Information Quality?

Who cares about reliable, up-to-date information? For best results, you should ask yourself this very important question before beginning your search.

Way back in the year 19{mumble}, when I was in graduate school working on my library science degree, one of the things I kept hearing in my online research courses was, "who cares?" No, we weren't getting sassy -- this was the professors' reminder of one of the best ways to find validated, reliable, up-to-date information... by figuring out who cared passionately about whatever topic we were researching, and then contacting that person or organization directly.

This was way before the days of the web, so it usually meant a lot of research in a library, to find out who was the expert on the construction of freeway overpasses or the removal of paint from historic buildings, for example.

It's a lot easier these days, of course. But I still surprise myself when I forget that simple question of "who cares?" A couple of examples:

I needed to find information on Acute Interstitial Pneumonia for a relative who had just been diagnosed with this disease. If you throw that phrase into Google, one of the first sites you get is from the Merck Manual -- a bible of medical information for the hypochondriac and those of us who just want to know that the twinge we feel isn't always fatal. But many of the other results are somewhat less authoritative or useful; in fact the next site was for interstitial pneumonia in cattle... not what I wanted at all!

Then I got smart and called a friend of mine who is a medical researcher, who suggested I consult the American Lung Association. That turned out to be an excellent source of information on interstitial pneumonia, and it was written in language that patients could understand.

Then a client asked me to identify the countries in which he should market a particular type of agricultural equipment. Sure, I could have started with a search in the market research report databases on Dialog.com or MarketResearch.com, but I decided to go directly to the US Department of Commerce, whose job it is to promote international trade and to help US companies create new markets overseas.

Sure enough, the STAT-USA database had a report specifically on the best markets for the agricultural equipment my client manufactures, along with contact information on the appropriate government officials, the key industry conferences he should exhibit at, and the leading agriculture publications in those countries.

These two research projects served as a reminder that the fastest way from question to answer is often not a search engine but an information tool -- a broad-based directory such as the Open Directory Project or Librarians' Index to the Internet, or even something as simple as searching a directory of trade and professional associations, such as the one maintained by the American Society of Association Executives.

Once you have found one or two good web resources, you can always expand your search by looking for other sites that link TO those sites. Use the link look-up technique described in my article, Web Link Look-Up.

So, try asking yourself, "who cares?" before you begin your next research project, and see what you turn up.

Mary Ellen Bates is the principal of Bates Information Services, a research and consulting business based in Washington, DC.

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