research trainer in the U.K. writes: "I have found some people do
not trust, or cannot conduct, Web-based research primarily because
they do not know where to look for what they need. They "google," but
don't go beyond the keyword search. If they find a primary source, it is a
matter of luck, rather than one of research strategy." She hopes readers of
Alert will share suggestions regarding the following:
1. What strategies would help a first time researcher, or a
student (or a reluctant judge), find primary sources using the Web, especially
when the researcher does not know who or what has the documents he needs?
2. Is Web-based research effective when a beginning researcher
wants to locate the archives of, or the entity responsible for, a primary
Responses come from Chris Pierre, an analyst with Intelysis Corp.,
Kathleen Fischer, an information consultant with Northwestern Mutual
Chris Pierre: I have a few suggestions.
First, if you know of a trusted source, such as a government agency
or an academic institution, go to its Web site. For example, connect
to the Harvard Law Library's Web site and search for your subject.
Matches should refer you to resources for continuing your research.
Second, I find that sometimes it helps to enter my
search terms as if they were a phrase appearing in a magazine. For
example, if your reluctant judge is looking for Toronto crime
statistics, he might enter "crime statistics in Toronto" in quotes.
This search on Google produced a local university Web page, which
referred me to a useful resource.
Another strategy resembles the game of Jeopardy.
Make the search statement a question. Matching documents often
contain headings that consist of questions.
Kathleen Fischer: First of all, ask a
librarian or other information professional for help. If research
were as simple as following a few rules or a checklist, everyone
would be an effective researcher. One would never ask for a few tips
on designing a building, or a few tips on structuring a
contract--they would consult an architect or an attorney. Research
is complex and requires knowledge, skill and experience.
Having said that, the beginning researcher should be
made aware of the "hidden web"--the vast amount of content not
accessible by search engines. There are many good primers and guides
to navigating the hidden web (and those guides can be found using
Editor: The answer to your question is more
worthy of a book than the space provided here. As Kathleen (above)
points out, the research process is a complex one. The fact that
it's an art, and not a science, makes it more difficult--but not
At the risk of shamelessly promoting my work, I
refer you to my recent book, Introduction to Online Legal,
Regulatory & Intellectual Property Research by Thomson
South-Western. The title's a handful and makes the book sound more
like a text for law students. But the fact of the matter is, it's
written for business people with little or no research or legal
training. Chapter One contains 17 pages that address your question.
Chapter Three presents several research scenarios that illustrate
the strategies described in the first chapter. The book is available
for sale directly from the publisher (see the link from our
home page), as well as
Several articles and teaching Webs on The Virtual
Chase also provide helpful suggestions for beginning researchers.
You can borrow ideas and materials from the teaching Web,
Teaching Internet Research Skills, or refer students to it.
While we no longer update this resource, many of the strategies and
suggestions still constitute good advice.
An entire section of The Virtual Chase consists of
articles on research issues. Many were written for lawyers, but
several--for example, "It's
the Source That Matters!"--serve a more general audience.
Another section contains brief tips on how to
specific research task. These focus primarily on legal and
public records issues, but the strategies are analogous to other
If your training involves evaluative issues (e.g.,
the importance of verifying sources), you may--with permission--use
materials from the teaching Web,
Evaluating the Quality of Information on the Internet.