I’ve blogged before about the importance of fact checking sources when researching nonfiction for kids. This post is about a slightly different research challenge that, in the age of the internet, is becoming a huge problem.
I sometimes teach classes on research techniques, for both writers and university students composing academic papers. First, I review the kinds of information sources writers can use. Then I discuss the way different sources are perceived and weighed by editors (and professors). Finally, we talk about how many sources the average 800-word children’s nonfiction article requires. When I tell students that articles I’ve written about DNA – a subject on which I can reasonably be considered an expert – reference about a dozen sources, they gape at me in horror. It’s a look resulting from the kind of mental math I’ve trained myself not to do – hours of work divided by potential financial compensation can be a pretty unhappy equation.
But it comes down to this. Nonfiction writers deal in facts. And if you only consult one source, how do you know the facts it contains are accurate?
The type of source can be a clue – experts in the field, archival documents, and government websites are arguably pretty trustworthy. There’s no substitute, however, for independent confirmation.
Achieving independent confirmation is not always easy though. I wrote my first four books in a little over three weeks, a contractual timeline that required a ton of research in a real big hurry. You can’t sacrifice accuracy for speed, though, even if you have no choice but to do the bulk of your research online.
The internet is awesome. It’s a great place to get an overview of a subject, and to identify the kinds of sources – books, professional papers, experts – I prefer to rely on. So I’m surfing the web in search of wildebeests and discover an odd thing: the same paragraph, verbatim, on more than a dozen sites. An hour’s hard Googling revealed that the paragraph originated with the IUCN Red List – a reputable source if ever there was one. But despite being splashed all over the internet, it’s still a single source.
Teachers, including myself, warn their students not to plagiarize. We also warn our students about the potential bias and inaccuracy of unedited online sources. The problem of accurate information appearing in multiple places is a more subtle one, but something all researchers, be they student or science writer, need to watch out for.
As a reward for anyone who read my lecture all the way through, I give you a well-confirmed wildebeest fact: 250,000 wildebeest calves are born in less than three weeks. That is 12,000 calves per day, or 500 calves every hour!
Have you encountered plagiarism on the internet? Share your stories in the comments!