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Subject: Information Research FAQ v.4.6 (Part 6/6)
This article was archived around: 06 Apr 2002 06:54:12 GMT
Last-modified: Feb 2001
Copyright: (c) 2001 David Novak
Maintainer: David Novak <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Information Research FAQ (Part 6/6)
100 pages of search techniques, tactics and theory
by David Novak of the Spire Project (SpireProject.com)
Welcome. This FAQ addresses information literacy; the skills, tools and
theory of information research. Particular attention is paid to the role
of the internet as both a reservoir and gateway to information
The FAQ is written like a book, with a narrative and pictures. You have
found your way to part five, so do backtrack to the beginning. If you
are lost, this FAQ always resides as text at
http://spireproject.com/faq.txt and http://spireproject.co.uk/faq.txt
and with pictures at http://spireproject.com/faq.htm
*** The Spire Project also delivers a 3 hour public seminar
*** Beyond Boolean: exceptional internet research. This is a
*** fast paced demonstration supported with webbing, reaching
*** the ground covered on our website and FAQs. Please visit
*** http://SpireProject.com/seminar.htm for synopsis and
*** Register you interest and we will try to come to your city.
David Novak - email@example.com
The Spire Project : SpireProject.com and SpireProject.co.uk
Searching as Industry.
Of interest to you now, the internet offers you a very good look at the
information industry. Most organizations involved in the information
industry publish exhaustive product descriptions on the net. Most
commercial products are delivered electronically.
Professional Search Resources
As a profession, researchers have diverse skills and needs. Constantly
working with information, in a competitive market, professional
information seekers are often starved for high quality information about
new research techniques, skills and sources. This can be found through
discussion groups like BusLib-l, websites on library science like
LisNews.com, associations like the Association of Independent
Information Professional (AIIP) and the Society of Competitive
Professionals (SCIP), events and conferences as listed in the journal
Online & CDROM Review.
As a more introductory resources, start with the a selection of books
and webpages like:
- The Intelligence Cycle, courtesy of the CIA library - a single-page
summary of the research process.
- The Information Broker's Handbook by Sue Rugge and Alfred
Glossbrenner, McGraw-Hill. Third Edition (1997) - a must-read for those
interested in the business side of information research.
- Secrets of the Super Searchers by Reva Basch. Unfortunately a 1993
book, but unique as a look into the field of information brokers.
Published by Eight Bit Books. (Dewey 025.524 BAS)
- Online is a good bimonthly magazine for information brokers. (Dewey
There are a number of interesting periodicals, most owned and marketed
by Information Today Inc. BUBL lists a number more . Others are
electronic publications, like LIBRES : Library and Information
Science Research Electronic Journal, a biannual scholarly journal and
Information Research .
The commercial databases of interest are LISA (Library and Information
Science Abstracts), ALISA (Australian LISA), Information Science and
The links for these resources and more are on the Spire Project at
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The Professional Search
Professional research demands a more effective, timely use of resources
at hand. It is challenging, and it is an occupation.
Unlike research undertaken for your own needs, professional researchers
often know little about the topic they are asked to investigate. We may
not know the phrases which accurately describe a specific concept, we
sometimes don't recognize gold if its labeled copper, but we have to do
everything fast - lest the cost escalate above the expectation of the
Client? Yes, professional research starts with the client.
Professional research involves far less book and library work, and far
more interviewing, database access and online article purchasing. When
money is involved, time becomes very precious. The first luxury lost:
the luxury to get to know the topic in leisurely detail.
Instead, professional research starts with a careful description of
exactly what information is desired (and why). You must quickly build a
good plan about who you will ask and where you will look. This is, after
all, your primary skill others have great difficulty in duplicating -
traversing the information sphere swiftly and skillfully.
Many researchers today can search databases. Most researchers are
familiar with library work. Personal research has the added benefit of
being part of the learning process. So why reach for a professional?
The first unique skill we must refine is our knowledge of the research
tools. Computer databases may be easily accessible, but are not easy to
search. Interviewing is conceptually simple, but is not simple in
practice. Each aspect of research can and must be refined.
The second unique skill: interpretation. Working with information
frequently allows us to better judge the reliability and bias of the
information we retrieve.
Most information you find will be tainted. Secondary expertise almost
always present information in a biased way. You will counter this bias
both by being aware of the bias and by interviewing someone with a
different view. An inventor proclaims a devise in near completion - do
we believe? Obviously it requires further study. This is often lost on
amateur researchers - by collecting information from a variety of
different resources, with a range of bias, we can create a superior
assessment of the value of each item of information. Research based
solely on government research, no matter how well done, is
The third unique skill is speed. We must be able to provide research as
a service, as a business, quickly. This goes beyond research to the
banal work of copyright and legal protection, selecting effective
research tools, finding fast expertise to supplement your own.
The skills of professional research are like the artist. They take a
lifetime to learn. The work is just business.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The Database Industry
The commercial information sphere existed in the 1970's and earlier. It
is far more developed, far better organized, far better funded, almost
always far more valuable and expensive than every other research
For the most part, commercial information is arranged reasonably
uniformly in large databases of full-text or bibliographic information.
Some databases are small, single source documents, while others are vast
unfocused collections of, for example, all the news from the last 15
Most directories and journals can be made into a database, but
single-source databases do not enjoy much financial success. The market
is too limited and the cost of promotion too high (except in a local
market with newspapers). To overcome this difficulty, single sources are
grouped together into larger collections of databases on a particular
topic. These large database groups have become primary tools in
Developing these databases requires considerable expertise and expense.
Sometimes data requires abstracting, interpreting, and as with some
Lexis-Nexis and WestLaw databases, even expert legal interpretation.
Sometimes firms develop a portfolio of databases. Sometimes firms build
The marketing and consumer billing of such databases is then provided by
a relatively small collection of large database retailers. A list can be
found in our "Commercial Databases" article. As an indication of the
size of this market, Knight-Ridder sold Dialog & Datastar for a figure
approaching half a billion dollars.
This industry consisting of a wide collection of players, each improving
and developing the information from individual periodicals, journals,
news items - all very confusing for the end user. This is elegantly
illustrated by the database descriptions for Lexis-Nexis databases
(their preferred term is libraries). See
http://www.lexis-nexis.com/lncc/sources/ as an example of specific
databases. In particular, see their library on patents.
Many single-sources appear in different commercial databases. Further,
different databases sometimes include different information from the
same single-source. One database may include just abstracts, another may
include fulltext, chemical indexing and more.
As a result, most researchers are unfamiliar with what exactly is being
This state of affairs is not unproductive. Searching a 'Database about
Patents', is uncomplicated. You receive information on patents. It is
simple, informative and incomplete. Of course, researchers are busy
people. Time is critical. Results matter. We are familiar with this
system from searching the web too. Just what are the differences between
All-the-Web, Lycos and Altavista? If we fully understood the
complexities of each available database, yet still have a few databases
to consider - would our search be better? Often not. This system of
incomplete information also leads to great customer loyalty to database
retailers. Comparative information is dropped in favour of simplicity.
Ultimately, I am hard pressed to compare prices let alone describe the
differences between information products.
Prices actually model many a developed industry, remarkably similar to
the telephone or banking industry. As one friend commented, "bullshit
baffles the brains". The prices are complex on purpose. It becomes very
unrewarding to compare prices, and any conclusions are only valid in
specific circumstances - and will not hold in others. This trend,
familiar to us as a multitude of banking changes and telephone pricing
schedules, reinforces our need to stop price hunting and trust our
favoured information retailers.
This is not to say we should not compare prices, just that you will find
comparing prices a most unrewarding experience. It really requires you
to search and retrieve the same information on different systems - and
this does not even begin to touch different databases, or database
groupings, or variables that change over time like download speeds.
Optimistically, there are actually very few important databases in each
field. It may be simple to browse each of the databases in your field
and compare directly. You may never need to know more than a few
Realistically, you will yearn for a simpler solution.
The commercial information industry has distributed information this way
for several decades. It is both sophisticated and quite difficult. You
will need to become experienced with inverted indexes, search techniques
(Boolean, truncation, proximity, field limits ...) and properly phrasing
the question in a way that will be answered by a database search. I have
always found the value of a database search directly proportional to the
length of the search query.
If you are incompletely skilled at database research, you will take
longer, pay more and locate far more information (or unwisely discard
more) than desired.
This is very different from searching Altavista and Webcrawler.
Doing your own research offers an opportunity to more closely influence
the research process. Sometimes only you understand the topic and
sometimes you can more quickly discard unimportant details. Certainly it
is becoming simpler to undertake some work yourself.
Many of the commercial databases are also available in a CD format.
Substantial subscription costs limit their availability to large
research institutions and libraries, but exceptions exist. I believe
world books in print costs AU$5000+. Provided you can find casual
access, it will cost you far less. Keep an eye on the age, though.
Sometimes (and only sometimes) online information is more recent.
The decision between undertaking research on your own or seeking
external help is really a decision based on your research expertise,
your budget, your access to information, your time, and the importance
of finding all the information available. It also depends on your access
to some decent research assistance. I will soon be able to help with
What I do know is a newcomer to the commercial information sphere will
seriously underestimate the difficulty involved in searching, and
underestimate both the cost of research and the cost of research
assistance. Keep in mind this same system serves the needs of large
commercial conglomerates, professional legal research, and well financed
government studies. The commercial information sphere contains far more
valuable information than you need. Sometimes the internet is just an
interesting sneeze in comparison.
¤ Article: The State of Databases Today:2000 by Martha E Williams,
tracts the development of this industry with survey results. Found as
the foreword of the Gale Directory of Databases.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Squeezing the Info-Broker
I was reading an interesting article by Anthea Statigos in ONLINE 
that stirred me to thinking about the future of Information Brokerage.
The article in question outlined the shift of information brokers into
the marketing department, towards new roles in negotiating information
access licenses, helping people understand and select appropriate
resources - and oddly, in overseeing the intranet development process so
as to deliver the information people need.
The article premise is rather accurate - as far as it goes. But I wonder
if the true message behind this shift is the decline and death of
information brokering as a profession? If information brokers (also
known as information professionals) are moving to new roles, are they
vacating the old roles, the traditional roles in the research process?
In my library, I reach for the Information Broker's Handbook  for a
"The heart and soul of the information broker's job is information
retrieval. But many individuals offer information organization services
So, Information Retrieval, and Information Organization. Anyone who has
seen the simple information retrieval options incorporated in recent
information packages can be in no mind that the information retailing
industry is certainly minimizing the need to reach for an intermediary.
Technology is certainly closing the gap - but this development has
always been in the cards.
A central difficulty for information brokers is a simple maxim: provide
better results than clients doing the search themselves. Often working
in unfamiliar territory, a researcher may find it very difficult to
excel. There are two dilemmas here. Firstly, while we may pride
ourselves in accomplishing unique requests, we have expensive costs
associated with one-off searches. There is little likelihood someone
else will ask a similar question. There are simply no possible economies
Secondly, our search difficulty is not shared by the client. The client
has difficulty with the technology - certainly. The client does not have
difficulty with recognizing the wheat from the chaff, the gold embedded
in the articles and at a basic level, the search words you will need to
get to the right stuff.
There is a very good reason why university students are pushed to learn
basic and sophisticated search technologies.
There is another take on this story.
Creating Value in the Network Economy  includes a chapter by Philip
Evans and Thomas Wurster.
"emerging open standards and the explosion in the number of people and
organizations connected by networks are freeing information from the
channels that have been required to exchange it, making those channels
unnecessary or uneconomical."
"Newspapers and banking are not special cases. The value chains of
scores of other industries will become ripe for unbundling. The logic is
most compelling - and therefore likely to strike soonest - in
information businesses ... All it will take to deconstruct a business is
a competitor that focuses on the vulnerable sliver of information in its
And in the back of my mind comes the thoughts that maybe the information
retrieval function we have been providing is just one such information
business. This business, attempting to be the pinnacle of the research
process, is ripe for unbundling. Not only can our function be
incorporated directly into the advertising and technology of the
information resources we use, but our skill can also be coded into
simpler and simpler guides and resources like my work on the Spire
Perhaps as an industry we never managed to secure our captive market.
Initially, this will affect that mainstay of information brokerage:
commercial database retrieval. And like the newspapers that will begin
lose the profit center of classified advertising (ripe for unbundling
and delivered electronically,) additional pressure will be applied to
the business of providing information research services.
Eventually, we retreat to other areas as information professionals:
Information Organization, Research Education and Training.
Somewhere in amidst this story lies a new role for researchers. The need
for research certainly exists and is forecast to grow dramatically as
the information age develops. What is lost, sadly, is an understanding
of the ease at which this work will be done. This is certainly destined
to move away from being an industry for professionals working at $50/hr
to $150/hr + costs! Others can provide this work, easier than now.
People we will most likely call researchers - and not information
This is more than a push towards specialization. There is another way to
see this transformation. The information broker was a retail point for
wholesalers who are now firmly selling directly to the consumer. There
is much less of a need for an intermediary between database retailers
and information consumers - and there is a firm trend in this direction.
Information brokers defined their role in the information industry as
masters of the difficult technology of research, capable of finding most
anything. Come to us when you are lost and we will find the answers -
for a price. We know the technology, the meta-resources, the tricks used
to find information. We routinely retrieve a higher quality of
information, far faster, than you can yourself. The standard model: a
library run service offering primarily database search & retrieval for
This business model is coming to an end.
Yes, perhaps the information broker is dead. Soon to be replaced with
low-wage researchers and research assistants, and high-end information
executives and research trainers. Like it or not, most of us will
incorporate a little more research into our current work, and reach for
a little more intelligible research resources. Everything else will be
accomplished by true specialists.
 Online (a periodical with some coverage of library & information
research. July/August 1999 p71-73, by Anthea Statigos of Outsell Inc.
 The Information Brokers Handbook p.21, by Sue Rugge and Alfred
Glossbrenner. Windcrest/McGraw-Hill. 1992.
Creating Value in the Network Economy, Edited by Don Tapscott.
Chapter 2: Strategy and the New Economics of Information by Philip Evans
& Thomas Wurster. p.18 & 25. A Harvard Business Review Book.
The Information Service Industry
Private Detectives, Professional Database Researchers, Library
Researchers, Legal Researchers, Commercial Database Producers,
Commercial Database Retailers, Magazines, News Organizations, Libraries,
this is a big industry. Information Research is just a process linking
together people seeking information with people who provide it.
It seems in vogue to reconsider all businesses as being in the
information business. My accountant and your stockbroker both provide
information services. While I agree these two professions are intensive
users of information, I purchase their interpretation of information. It
is not a trivial difference but nonetheless serves to cloud the true
size of the industry just involved in selling you access to information.
From university days, I was aware of the large commercial database
retail giants (Dialog, Dun&Bradstreet) and the database producers. I
also met with some of the firms distributing largely to the library
market (like SilverPlatter). Little further information about these
businesses leaks beyond the research industry.
Some of the businesses are aimed primarily towards the library
community. Database subscriptions are unlikely to interest an
individual. Few are appropriate to businesses. Let us briefly scan just
the products and services intended for a consumer.
Commercial Database Retailers - These organizations devote their effort
at bringing commercial database information to individuals. Dialog,
Datastar, Infomart, Lexis-Nexis and others will assist you to access
information only available through commercial databases. (See our
article, "Commercial Databases".)
Current News and Current Awareness - If you want to know of new articles
and news important to you as it is reported, then there are a selection
of services available: news by email, news by newsgroup, news by
periodic automated database search, and other novel approaches. Costs
for this service have fallen dramatically: effective solutions start at
about US$10/month and are not strictly dependent on range & quality of
information. (See our article, "Newswires & News Databases".)
Information Brokers - There is a whole industry of specialized
researchers who will try to locate and compile research to your
specifications. The backbone of this industry is payment for access to
commercial databases, but different information brokers will gladly
enter into any effort required to locate information. Information
brokers, business librarians, legal researchers and others all use the
tools described in this website, as a service for their clientele. (See
our article, "Research as a Discipline".)
Patent Assistance - Patent searching is one of the more difficult
branches of serious research. Some of the resources are free on the
internet, and commercial patent databases are readily available through
the database retailers. If there is serious money at stake, you must
consider legal assistance. Certainly use lawyers for patent applications
(beyond the scope of the Spire Project). But a patent can also be a
research tool. Patent research can provide you with what is often the
first appearance of costly commercial research. This is both a source of
cutting edge solutions and competitive intelligence.
Media Monitoring - Certain firms solely focus on monitoring TV, radio &
newspapers. These firms typically run teams who page through newspapers
looking for matching articles, then post or fax to the client. New
technologies are also advancing into this field.
Document Delivery - Most local bookstores will gladly help you locate a
book from their directories but if you want a book from abroad, or an
article from a journal or magazine, you will need the assistance of
another set of information workers. A distinct but similar approach
assists with the distribution of journal articles. Many of the document
delivery firms are closely tied to information organizations. Little
information is available about these organizations.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Trends in the Information Sphere
For the past few years, individual database owners/maintainers have been
flirting with the idea of making paid access available through the
internet, rather than the existing system of allowing database retailing
firms to promote and market their databases. I have heard rumours most
database producers earn up to 30% of retail price when delivered through
database retailers - 70% being retained by the database retailer.
The internet is not a commercially viable alternative...yet, but some
databases have emerged with alternative funding despite this (Library of
Congress, ERIC, Medline). Others are creeping in around the edges by
offering subscribers access at a much reduced flat annual fee (Computer
Select at one time). I expect most database producers are waiting for a
meaningful way to charge. Digital money holds the key but despite the
hype, practical use appears to be a medium to long-term reality.
A second trend is internet publishing itself. Gradually, the information
is getting easier to locate. (Don't laugh please - its undignified.) We
are also getting better at using the internet as a tool to disseminate
information. We have the very visible, if perhaps short-lived, search
engines but also other efforts like archives of FAQs, archives of
guidebooks, applying the Dewey decimal system to the internet,
specialist directories, subject guides, specialist search engines. This
will be a lively field for several years to come. As it gets easier to
locate the good information, perhaps the lines between commercial
quality and internet quality will begin to merge in places.
The third trend is the very promising prospect of paying for information
by the page through the internet - viewing the results in a web page
immediately. There are some technical hurdles yet, but certain elements
are already appearing in ventures like DialogWeb. This step may prove
profitable for ATM vendors and owners of internet cafes, pubs and
kiosks. It will also herald a dramatic drop in the cost of information.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Are We Developing an Informative Internet?
Several serious glitches have delayed the further improvement of the
internet as an effective information resource. Oh, sure it is the
world's largest library and thousands of new webpages are published
every hour. But this trite statement disguises how slow the informative
value of the internet is developing.
The internet holds so very much promise. Marketing mantras tell us so,
but few of us grasp this technology will completely rewrite the rules of
community, government and the exchange of intellectually valuable
One of the hurdles is vision. We are not yet delivering the information
pertaining to community, government and the exchange of intellectually
valuable (improved) information. We are only proceeding quickly with
market information and computer-related information. We are still toying
with further ways the internet can transform other areas of our life.
We should have achieved more by now.
The net is still very disorganized. A number of developments promise to
eventually make the internet less confusing and better organized. To
date, we have several cumbersome techniques, a large collection of
search tools and a great deal of potentially interesting links.
As mentioned, thinking about who is publishing assists us with our
search. Applying this to where information is emerging - and we learn
much of the best information is not reaching the internet. Certainly,
the commercially generated information is not reaching the internet
(covered below). The large research studies paid for by public funds and
slowly aging on the shelves of government and non-government
organizations are also not coming online. Government, institutional and
commercial organizations primarily publish brochure-ware - as befitting
the presentation of market information. (Even offering to publish such
documents freely does not appreciably affect this trend as the
restrictions are not financial, but mindset. See our past work.)
We should recognize few of the more valuable documents emerge online.
Further Reading: Socially Responsible Publishing on the Internet ('97)
(Available on request)
A Census of Regionally Important Documents on the Web ('96)
(Available on request)
The internet excites me with the promise of a real community rebirth
arising from this technology. For the first time in history we should be
able to discuss in an informed manner any number of issues from crime to
taxation. Tied into this are issues of government transparency,
international assistance, anti-corporate market reform and community
involvement. Unfortunately, my experience with mailing lists and more
recently with a newsgroup confirm the difficulties in developing
discussion. Discussion groups function as notice board. Unfortunately,
the difficulty in developing participation, and in moderation, are just
a little too cumbersome to be successful. For many discussion groups,
the chaff overwhelms the wheat, and the information content is far from
The financial rewards are also minimal for establishing and maintaining
discussion groups. Dramatic improvement to the informative value of the
internet is unlikely to emerge here.
Further Reading: How to build a discussion on the Internet (by David
Novak - available on request.
We have alluded to the importance of editorial and organization on the
internet. There are several severe limitations to this - first and
foremost the difficulty in gathering financial rewards for meaningful
work improving and organizing information.
I am being circumspect here. There is money available - just not where
it is needed. The most important resources in professional research are
the contents of the commercial information sphere. This sphere existed
decades before the internet, is far better funded, and is far larger. To
compare commercial and internet information is almost heresy. A bridge
between these two, internet and commercial, emerges slowly.
Digital money should grease the exchange of information by dropping the
cost of exchange considerably. Today, credit cards provide this service.
This works, at times, but digital money would allow for small amounts of
money to change hands. This appears to be a critical threshold for
bringing much of the commercial information to the net.
About 5 years ago I was introduced to the Thesius Model - an economic
model to pay the intellectual investment in publishing and organizing
interactive multimedia. Years earlier there was Xanadu. While I have
serious reservations about both, they do illustrate the intellectual
foundations for effective use of a tool for exchanging small amounts of
money. It opens the doors to direct delivery of copyright work - which
in turn opens an effective economic model for publishing improved
information on the internet.
Without digital money, proprietary information can only be exchanged
digitally by gift (that is free - the initial driving force of the
internet information sphere, or by credit-card purchase of access to
passwords to external networks - the current method of accessing
This has the unfortunate effect of limiting the interest both of
internet users in the commercial information sphere and the commercial
information retailers in the internet. Oh, there is movement in both
directions, but not at the scale experienced in other industries.
Further Reading: The UWA Theseus Project
The Xanadu project (http://www.xanadu.com or concise summary -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A Look at Information Congestion
Finding information on the internet is a skill. Finding information on
the commercial information sphere is also a skill. There is a great
degree of overlap. The awareness of the general public as measured by
use of commercial resources is very limited. This is further seen from
the simple use of search engines & the abundance of simple web search.
To hammer this point in, let's take a momentary look at search engines.
Most searches end in 1000's of results: here are the first 10. Do you
really think the first 10 or 20 or 100 sites listed are particularly
better than the next? No - you have a random selection of resources. A
selection generated by computer based on the most simple of criterion.
(We should also mention how some search engines sell placement in search
Remarkably, the search engine is the much-vaulted entryway to the world
of information!?! Clearly search engines will not dramatically improve
the informative value of the net - not by themselves.
Multiplication of Information
One complication of poor information organization is an inflation of
information overlapping nuggets. Information on the internet is so
difficult to locate we have almost a continual need for more publishing.
Information must exist in numerous locations to reach an intended
audience. Promotion of the simplest nature - recognition for the best
for a given topic - becomes exceedingly difficult. Only when 20 sites
publish or report a given fact does it become accessible.
Curiously, this is the state of affairs in the wider community.
Promotion is an expensive specialty. Numerous copies, distributors and
references are required to generate any kind of significant awareness.
Why should the internet be different?
Actually, why should the internet be the same? Definitive like the US
Census Bureau have no need to duplicate this information; to have
alternative presentation sites. Yet such sites appear the exception.
Consider a search for the best resources for patent research, we are
greeted with 954 websites (Altavista search for "patent research"
Jan-19-2001). Presumably, most of these sites discuss patent research -
Right? There is no technical or theoretical need for such confusion. I
wonder if such duplication may be more of an affliction than natural
It is relatively difficult to earn money from publishing improved
information, or organizing information already on the internet. Given
the intense interest in this technology, a collection of models have
emerged. A brief tour of these models will highlight the financial
limitations to improving the internet as an informative resource.
- - - Working for fame (but not payment)
This model works well in open source software programming, and some of
this ethic certainly extends to publishing information.
Simple altruism/complete lack of justification
School students and internet novices in particular may not need to
justify anything. Unfortunately, such work is usually neither consistent
- - - Commercial promotion
Promotional funds can be used to publish information. Most promotion is
short-sighted, limited to presenting market information (like product
information), but in time government and associations will fund
publishing in-house information for purely promotional reasons.
- - - Invested commercial businesses
There are certain commercial opportunities to earn money through banner
advertising and sponsorship.
Direct payment for improved information (perhaps with digital money),
direct payment to authors (Theseus model, royalty systems), and direct
state sponsorship need not be necessary to fundamentally improve the
internet as an information resource. Academic peer-reviewed journals do
not pay for articles. Commercial periodicals are supported by
advertising, and the token subscription costs of magazines usually just
covers distribution costs. Fame motivates many efforts, not just online,
and we do not feel the need to habitually justify everything we do.
In no small way, as more people become adept at publishing quickly,
important information will move on the net faster. Similarly,
information will also gradually become better organized. Economic models
will not improve the informative value of the internet like direct
payment. Most current limitations have economic solutions.
Unfortunately, my reasoned opinion is no economic system will arrive in
time to make a difference.
We know something of how information gets published, and how many
important documents do not reach the internet. We have described how
information is organized on the internet and how limited editorial
vetting and organization have given rise to certain traits which give
rise to the traits like superficial indexing, information duplication,
and a need for research skills.
Financial rewards and financial tools are unlikely to solve these
difficulties. We can only hope for a gradual growing out of our current
difficulties. We will have more of the same for several years to come.
It is simply the nature of the internet (as currently constructed).
For you, a greater understanding of the internet will assist you to
judge the worth, likely source and likely venues of the information you
seek. The same is true in the larger world... database, book & article.
Each has different traits and qualities, reinforced over time. Your
understanding of these traits and qualities in part defines your skill
as a researcher.
As to the future of the internet, on the positive side, there are
certain qualities to internet communication that make it uniquely
valuable. Internet communication is inexpensive, relatively rapid, and
increasingly accessible. On the negative side, the internet is badly
vetted, potentially very time consuming, and up against very well
entrenched systems that have been running for either decades or
millenniums (considering databases or books). Elements like a promised
but functionally absent digital money, and the lack of a meaningful way
to recoup the costs of vetting online information, make matters worse.
Despite this, despite ALL the teething and fundamental difficulties, the
internet is sufficiently superior to ensure considerable continued
effort to improve the informative value of the net.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The Multiplication of Information Effect.
Just as the internet permits a multitude of voices and perspectives, so
it permits - and promotes - a multitude of the same information. Yes.
For a several reasons we shall explore first, the internet multiplies
the amount of information there is on a topic. This insight can be used
to improve searching for information, as I will show at the end of this
The internet is a system of communication. Like all other systems
(books, articles) the internet systems affect the way we communicate in
different ways. The absolute number of books depends on what is thought
can be commercially viable. We could say books permit, and promote a
limited number of books on the same topic.
The internet does the opposite.
The sheer ease of publishing information on the net is one factor in
information overkill. The net is an easy place to publish information,
requiring only individual effort. There is no budgetary concerns, nor
does attracting an audience initially enter into the publishing process,
as they would with articles or books.
The ageless state of the internet also rapidly builds information. Old
information is not removed from the web automatically as in mailing
lists. Old books go out of print and past magazine articles are shelved,
indexed and categorized so we must intentionally include them in our
search. The web is not built this way, and information well past its
natural expiry date remains.
A dramatic change is also occurring as our society becomes digital. In
the pre-internet economy experts and specialists in every field are
distributed to meet needs. In the networked world, expertise is not only
shared more rapidly, but is required in less places - whether we speak
geographically or intellectually. Said another way, in cyberspace,
competition for expertise is most fierce. To be an expert, you need to
be more expert than others within reach - and since gradually more and
more experts are within reach - digitally - we form a glut of experts.
Oh, this is not a doomsday message - merely a middle ground on the way
to increased specialization and focus. Historically we can easily see
Newton was a Scientist but Einstein was a nuclear theorist. Today we
have quantum theorists. The future is full of very long job titles.
A by-product of this movement is a current glut of experts - perhaps a
permanent glut of experts. With more people connected and satisfied with
distant communication, a vet who writes about immunizing your dog
becomes one of many you can reach for, in several countries. Previously
we may have been limited to those in your state - but no longer! Now we
can pick up immunization recommendations from any number of experts
previously separated by distance or with minimal overlapping media
We can see this clearly on the web. I wrote an article on country
profiles and yes, as expected, the UK, US, Canada & Australia all write
and publish traveler advice notices on the web. Are they different?
Occasionally. Is this a case of multiplication of information? Yes. We
have reached beyond the applauded internet trait of permitting a
multitude of communication and reached a state where similar information
is interpreted by different organizations, and distributed
This is not unique to the internet. News stories also contain
considerable overlap from one newspaper to another. A search for dog
immunization on one of the large news databases will result in numerous
articles all presenting essentially similar information. Business
periodicals also have considerable overlap, and while each may attempt
to differentiate their articles from others, there are severe limits -
and besides, most likely articles do not have an overlapping clientele.
But on the internet, there is overlapping readers. An article written
for the web is an article written for everyone. Anyone can read it.
Thanks to the popularity of search engines, it can be available to
anyone. At least in theory.
This leads us to internet promotion. Information on the web is sometimes
so difficult to locate we have an almost continual need for more
publishing. Real traffic is difficult to promote normally, so websites
devoted primarily to delivering information have a real difficulty
reaching their audience. This translates either to the need for
expensive commercial promotion, which often can not be justified, or
into reaching only those who search carefully for your information. The
latter means multiplication of the same information.
In writing this article, I see the effects mentioned will lead to
changes in the future. As I write "attracting an audience initially
enter into the publishing process", I think to myself this will
obviously change. Attracting an audience will emerge in time as the
primary step in publishing. There are many places to take this
discussion, but my job is a researcher, or rather an internet-focused
search theorist. (Long job titles will be in vogue). Let us focus on how
these changes effect this internet as an information resource.
1) Any effort to organize the internet is diluted because of these
2) Any effort by the researcher to find different perspectives will be
confounded by the number of people with the same perspective publishing
in the same medium.
3) Certain fields are more heavily hit than others. Internet advice on
what search engines to use is ubiquitous. Java Programming hints are
numerous. More specialized topics (like internet-focused search theory)
are less affected.
4) Viral marketing - a catchword for sure, hopes to achieve promotion by
seeding many sites with information. Perhaps an innovative way around
accepting the multiplication of sites delivering the same or similar
In phrasing the question you wish to answer, before the search,
experienced researchers will focus on what information is likely to be
available in numerous overlapping versions. These questions can be
answered with the search tools that cover information in a more random
manner: Search Engines do this very well. Tightly focused questions,
less likely to be distributed so completely, should be approached with
different tools: mailing lists and nexus points, long complex search
queries and index points.
In conclusion, the internet will become far more cluttered than we had
expected. I had previously predicted that search engines would grow to
meet the needs, but this is not to be. Search engines will continue to
serve up answers available from multiple places in the world. There is
market enough in this, and minimal need to tackle anything more.
Getting the Best from the Internet.
A search for information on the internet is not essentially different
from the standard information search process. You still need to start by
outlining carefully just what you are hoping to locate. You also need to
be aware of the peculiarities of the internet as a researchable resource
(or rather a collection of resources). If you expect instant delivery of
exactly what you require, free, then you need a reality check (and I am
sure you will get one real soon). Sadly, the printed media tends to
As with all resources, the more familiar you are with a given resource,
the more efficiently you will work. Get to know the internet for a time
first. Understand how it works. Then re-adjust your expectations and
file it as just another collection of resources, perhaps preferable in
A Structured Approach to Searching
Much of this book has been devoted to describing what we could call a
structural approach to finding information. We build a question, select
a format and then search in an essentially static manner. There are only
a few resources of interest for each format.
On the internet, we again do the same. If you want to search online
periodicals (a specific format for information with specific qualities
that might be appropriate) there are just a few sites to review. The
search is simple and straightforward. Search then read then reassess if
it helped answer your question.
The structured approach has been a simpler way to introduce a far more
important application. Searchers know where answers are already -
without ever having read the answer before - without having studied the
topic. This is, after all, one of the few reasons to even consider
paying for professional search assistance.
How does a searcher know where answers lie?
By building up a clear understanding of what information is out there,
where it resides, and how to get to it, a searcher learns to anticipate
the location of answers. Anticipation is everything.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Know Where to Look
Let's look at information itself. Information passes from producer, to
organizer, to consumer. It travels many paths in this journey.
Superficially, we can observe internet communication travels via email,
newsgroups, and webpages (and others). Let's call these tools.
Looking deeper, we observe information emerges from just a few
generalized sources: knowledgeable individuals, informed government
employees, grant funded educational projects, commercial organizations
and a few others. Each source produces a particular type of information,
distributes (publishes & promotes) in particular channels, and hopes to
pay for (or justify) their effort in a particular way.
Efficient internet research is infused with an understanding of who
publishes, where and why.
Before information reaches the consumer, it passes through a vetting
which organizes and filters both the quality and the presentation style
of the information. Let us call these systems. The FAQ is a pivotal
piece of a system that may start with a post to a mailing list or
newsgroup, involves the vetting of the FAQ maintainer, then proceeds to
an FAQ archive then to the end consumer. The webpage is published by
someone who has justified their time and expense, is indexed by a search
engine or definitive-topic-website or webring or what have you, and then
is found and read by the end consumer. The internet has many such
Each system again defines many of the traits of the resulting
information. FAQs are semi-authoritative, collaborative pieces, often
dense and factual. Private mailing lists are sometimes more informative,
discussive, as well as serving as a notice board. Newsgroups involve far
less natural vetting and quality control, but excel in distributing
popular volume resources like graphics. Search engines don't vett, but
can be searched.
Each system reinforces the uniqueness it brings to the whole internet.
When I blindly declare "Information Clumps" at the start of this FAQ, I
am really describing a trend whereby certain information accumulates in
a particular location, others out of self-interest add to the pile, and
further information reinforces both the logic and uniqueness of that
pile of information.
It is just a short jump from this to understanding how FAQ archives grow
but maintain a good quality, how the grand internet search engines began
to lose value about 15 months ago then recently began regaining a
position of strength, and how ftp archives still exist for many computer
The internal logic to the organization of information is based on simple
principles. It defines the environment within which we strive to improve
the internet as an effective information resource. We take this
understanding and build sophisticated expectations about what kind of
information rests at which format.
Further Reading: Searching the Web: Strategy
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Make your browser work for you. All browsers allow you to open multiple
windows panes. Open a few and send them off in different directions
fetching information. You do not have to wait for each page to return to
you before you read. With a little practice, you can juggle four window
panes, collecting information from different tools, following different
trains of thoughts, reading your way through four websites as they are
The technique is a little like reading four books at once. It certainly
keeps your mind nimble. Worked successfully, multiple windows will
double the speed of searching and free you from the speed of your
Three technical tips are involved. Firstly, a second window pane is
opened by selecting File : New : New Window. The shortcut key for this
Control+N. Secondly, in Microsoft Explorer, depressing your shift key as
you click a link will open the distant file in a new window. In
Netscape, depress the control button as you click a link. Thirdly, if
you are running windows, the Alt + Tab button jumps between window
Taken together you can read down a page, find something interesting,
shift+click a link, continue reading the original page, then flip over
to reading the second page in a new window.
Keep in mind, juggling windows is difficult and requires practice. If
you do this in public, be prepared to lose novice surfers who are not
ready to use more than one window.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Bookmarks are a fine tool for beginners to build. It is not, however,
the best organization of tools for a searcher. One of the roles of the
Spire Project has been the construction of a far more effective tool,
based on having the more common search tools and supporting information
close together, on your own computer.
Beyond being a plug for you to look at our free shareware
SpireProject.zip (http://spireproject.com/spire_latest_version.zip) and
single-page shortcut Spire Project Light"
(http://spireproject.com/spir.htm), there is a serious issue here.
If you are familiar with the use of search engines - and you have fast
access to the search box for the search engines - you no longer need the
Urls for specific resources. With a name, you can always quickly locate
a page. Besides, Urls change. Far better to just keep a list of
resources by name.
At the start of this FAQ, we mentioned a searcher knows where to find
"Knowing of specific resources is helpful. Knowing the tools to help you
find resources, the meta-resources, is vital."
Fast access to information resources is valuable. Fast access to the
tools to find information is critical. Build your launch pages with
these tools in mind.
Searching is Art.
Pharaoh: There is mutiny afoot. I must kill these insolent heretics.
Shakh: Good Idea. So who is involved?
Pharaoh: I don't know. You must find this out.
Shakh: Find out what?
Pharaoh: Who my enemies are, of course.
Pharaoh: People who want me dead.
Shakh: But not those who want a better ruler...
Pharaoh: No not them.
Shakh: What about the ones that want a better ruler, and would not mind
Pharaoh: That sounds like everyone.
Shakh: And those that want you dead but would never do anything about
Pharaoh: Well, so long as they don't help anyone else.
Shakh: Then you just want the ones who will try to kill you.
Shakh: Good. Now we know exactly what we are searching for. We are
seeking those who will try to kill you. I shall straight away
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Napoleon was an expert tactician, except at Waterloo. The recreation of
past battles is not a favorite pastime of mine but is an exciting topic
all the same. The battle terrain was set. The troops have known
abilities and limitations. The movement and direction of the army units
is your responsibility. Do you have the strategy involved?
Early in his career in an important fight against the Prussians,
Napoleon employed a dramatic tactic where he initially held an important
hill in the center of the battlefield, then surrendered the hill to the
Prussians. The Prussians, confident at this stage, marched the majority
of their army around the hill to right, between the hill and a lake, to
push the fight on to Napoleon. Napoleon, however, retook the hill with a
costly attack up the hill by some of his best units. Success left him in
control of the high ground, much of the Prussian army below, moving
between the hill and the lake. Unable to dislodge Napoleon from the hill
a second time, and unable to withdraw the army from their exposed
position, Napoleon pushed on to defeat the Prussians most decisively.
The armies were almost evenly matched prior to this conflict and success
seemed unlikely. An average general would have fought in a bland way,
retreating or perhaps fighting to a stalemate. Napoleon inflicted a
decisive defeat. Such generalship goes beyond technical skill to
encompass a vision, a strategy, an art.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
If I have not been careful, I will have presented searching as shopping
in a supermarket. The goods are in a large store but there is a decent
enough structure to find it. Third aisle for baby food. Go there and
Of course, we have discussed two further types of search improvements.
There is the skills around properly asking questions. You want a
question which accurately describes what you are looking for but you
also want the question to be framed in a way which the resources can
There is also the awareness of where information SHOULD be. If you know
what kinds of information exist and you ruminate long enough on the
likely motivations of publishing, we can make some fairly detailed
judgements on the whereabouts of the answers you are looking for.
There is further skill in dealing with the technical difficulty of
information overload. You have limited time and limited resources.
Finding information is often a hit or miss affair, so there is an art to
selecting the right words to search, the right Boolean prefixes to
attach to search terms, the right search tactics to employ to get the
most out of each situation.
For much of this, you need only experience. If you know in advance a
skilled searcher can handle the task of sifting reams of data for useful
information, then you can focus on how its done, practice, and learn.
The search technology itself is simple.
The trouble lies in retrieving from databases with far too much
information for simple word selection. It also flares when you are
dealing with databases charging up from $2 a minute and an additional
cost per item retrieved. You decide very quickly to get good at
searching once you receive a bill for $200 of irrelevant information.
The simplest solution to this difficulty is to practice. You will find
all research libraries provide access to slightly older articles through
CD-ROM databases. Search these to hone your skills.
I saw a small book on search techniques from an early course in my state
library - but it is very basic. Most librarians build experience in
using search systems either internally, or through a series of courses
given by travelling database officers like the periodic training by
Dialog-Insearch. These are expensive, but include some free time
searching the expensive databases (no, they don't let you take
information back with you).
Now, there must be something else I can share with you on this topic.
First, learn something about how the databases are built in the first
place. It helps if you know what an inverted text database looks like.
Second, something personal about technique... I always find the uglier
the search query, the better the result. Honestly. A search combining
numerous elements improves your chances of getting it right.
Third, I always try to change my search techniques to match the medium.
I am likely to be more careful of broad searches of expensive database,
where as free databases often lead me to gather 50 articles, then
weeding them out by hand. (most CD-ROMs allow you to select only the
ones you want). Always bring a 3.5'' floppy with you when visiting a
library on the of-chance you want to download and look at results
Fourth, I almost always find the initial challenge is in locating those
specific terms that appear in 80% of the documents that interest you.
When searching the internet for information about government use of the
web, the specific terms required were government and publishing (not
even government publish was close) All other search terms gave far to
much garbage. Yes, of course, being an expert in a particular field is
an edge in already knowing these special terms.
There are two escape hatches here. If you can find one or two articles
that interest you, often you can browse these articles for those special
words. Sometimes even, the descriptors of an interesting article will
give you a specific subject heading. I've heard this technique called
the "Pearl Development Technique" but I just think of it as a good idea.
The second escape hatch is the use of free databases to prepare you for
going online. If you have ready access to a CD-ROM database, search this
first - get the right search words on the free databases, then go
Oh, of course, there is also the issue of just asking someone involved
for the proper words. I like to ask my clients if they know what words
are likely to be used. It's not a mark of an amateur to be asked, by the
A couple of side issues
1) Keep an eye on the type of document you are searching. If you want
full text - don't go looking in bibliography databases. More to the
point, don't start word searching databases with really big files
without using the proximity indicators and descriptive fields. I hated
paying for that 20-page document which included all the words I was
interested in - but on different pages.
2) Also, keep an eye on the quality of the documents you are retrieving.
I know a search of newspapers sounds impressive, but they are rarely
capable of explaining anything in depth and are notorious at being
advertorials. I try to keep newsprint for locating experts - not for
information. I have also been trapped by obscure magazines with
appealing articles, only to learn the magazine is one of a large number
of very basic business magazines which use fillers or just doesn't like
to pay for good journalism. A single article of 5 pages from Scientific
American blows 20 small fillers out of the water. In fact the length of
an article is a hint of depth.
Oh, if you are looking for some really good books on this issue, try the
manuals Dialog sends you to start, look for text databases in you
library, then proceed to one of the search books recommended at the end
of our 'research as a discipline' article.
Basic Techniques to research change slowly, though the technology is
improving and specific information resources are in rapid flux. It makes
for interesting times.
So many resources. So many techniques. Its strange to have written down
so very much that is dull and tiring yet get it right. You simply must
muddle through all those links to get a decent result.
Yet the end result is to portray searching as an intensely dull
experience. We have very few choices. The information exists in certain
clearly marked places. We merely need collect it.
If we are not careful we will present you the idea that searching is
more like shopping in a supermarket. The goods are in a large store but
there is a decent enough structure to find it. Third aisle for baby
food. Go there and look around.
Actually, this is the general approach to searching. There is no art, no
talent, just skill and knowledge of the technology. Want a webpage on
dogs - go to Yahoo and type in dogs. Want a telephone number - take out
the white pages and remember the alphabet. Want a book and you are near
the library, walk in and ask a librarian. Alternatively, walk in and
type a few words in the library book database.
But there is more - so very much more. And all of this makes for
Let's look at an example. We want information on how to improve the
schooling of your exceptionally gifted child. A simple request. What do
The art is a kind of magic, of choosing just the right words at the
right times, and in phrasing your request for information in a way that
tightly describes your interest without removing information that should
interest you. The art of searching relies heavily on an understanding of
what is possible within a given system. Much of this, you guessed it,
involves creative visualizing.
The Last Word.
Searching is an attitude. It is a way of looking at the world, and at
information, quite distinct from the norm. Statistics are mentioned on
TV and you subconsciously weigh the value. You listen to experts and
wonder who pays them, and so where the potential purpose bias could come
from. Searching is an attitude with little tolerance for spin, puffery
or questionable interpretation of statistics.
Searching can be a very negative attitude - and this is our last lesson.
Search with a critical mind, but also know at some point you must say
enough. Enough searching, it is time to make a decision. This line is
not defeat, but acceptance that decisions are made on incomplete
information. Make your decision when you are ready.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Shakh stood before the entrance to the tomb. It was not quite complete.
The glyphs were etched for only the first thirty feet of the passageway,
and workers were still preparing the burial chamber. The thick dusty air
made it hard to breath, but at times it was better than staying outside
where the temperature continued to climb.
Shakh admired the art on the wall. Meaning within meaning. The divine
representations stood offering the pharaoh recognition. In exchange the
pharaoh offered a just reign. The scene worked well. Such work was one
of the few ways the pharaoh could communicate with the gods.
Yet there were other layers to the picture. The gods were depicted as
pleased with the work of the pharaoh. Their recognition was a reward for
the years of ruling Egypt.
There, further in the picture, was reference to the accomplishments of
the pharaoh. Much of the writing was dictated by tradition, and the
individual scribes were all instructed in the tale, so meaning was
particularly important in what was different from other tombs. It was
the small differences that made this work unique, that elevated the work
from that suitable for any important person to that fit for a king.
Birth in a village close to the Nile. References to the pharaoh's
re-conquest of Nubia. The special position of Horus, the falcon god.
Then there was the technology. Sparkling stars on blue covered the
ceiling. This was a new development, unseen before in crypt or building.
It had a pleasant effect, expanding the space within the tomb, making it
look larger than it really was.
And then there was the artistry to the carving. These were fine scribes,
clean and precise. The work satisfied him well.
Walking out of the half-completed tomb, Shakh sighed, wiped the
gathering sweat from his brow, then gave a small thought to the poor sap
he used to work for. The old pharaoh had never learned information was
power, thought Shakh, sighing regally.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank my wife Fiona, whom I love and
cherish dearly. The Spire Project is a great effort several years in the
making. I trust you enjoyed the results.
David Novak - firstname.lastname@example.org - SpireProject.com and
Copyright (c) 1998-2001 by David Novak, all rights reserved. This FAQ
may be posted to any USENET newsgroup, on-line service, website, or BBS
as long as it is posted unaltered in its entirety including this
copyright statement. This FAQ may not be included in commercial
collections or compilations without express permission from the author.
Please post permission requests to email@example.com