Mistrust and Verify

August 31, 2017

As an editor, I’ve always had to do a certain amount of fact-checking—names, dates, places, and other facts. I thought I was fairly good at it, since I’d been fact-checking in one form or another for 30 years. Before the Internet came along, I had a massive set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that I used to dig through, sitting on the floor surrounded by open volumes. And since the Internet, I’ve spent a lot of time online doing research, surrounded by open tabs on my browser.

In 2014, however, I got a project to fact-check an entire book, and it became clear to me that I had a lot to learn when it came to fact-checking and online research. I finished the book and the client was happy with the results, but I wasn’t happy with how long it took me and how frustrating it was to locate and verify some of the facts (or not locate and verify them in a few cases).

Since that project, I’ve been reading about fact-checking and trying to learn more about it, when I’ve had the time. I shared what I’d learned in a series of blog posts between November 2015 and July 2017. Now I’ve gone through those posts, reorganized them, and compiled the best points into a PDF, in case the links and advice might be helpful to others.

The topics covered in this blog (and the PDF) include books and news articles, blogs and resources, links, search techniques, and sometimes things that just strike me as interesting. I’ve also included things that may seem pretty basic to some readers, but little things can make a big difference if you’re not aware of them.

This isn’t a blog about political fact-checking. I’m an editor, not a journalist or a campaign worker.

I’m calling this “Mistrust and Verify” in honor of a friend I used to work with. When he’d proofread something, he’d say, “There’s a mistake on this page, and I’m going to find it.” And since he was a good proofreader, he often found quite a lot. That’s a helpful attitude to have in fact-checking, too—not “These facts are probably correct,” but “These facts may well be wrong, and they’re not to be trusted until they’re verified.” I don’t recommend skepticism as a personality trait, but it can be very helpful in fact-checking. As Craig Silverman put it in his Verification Handbook, the basic principle of verification is “How do you know that?” And, if you’re going to be thorough about it, “How else do you know that?”

So here’s some advice on “How do you know that?” Or at least on how you can look into it. You can download my PDF of past blog posts at the bottom of the page, which go through July 2017.

July 2017

posted Jul 27, 2017, 12:46 PM by Frank Steele   [ updated Sep 7, 2017, 12:40 PM ]

July 27, 2017

I’ve been editing a 130,000-word dissertation for the last two months, and I think I’m seeing signs of it ending soon. Thank God. (Better it than me.) The work has been interesting, but I don’t think I’m cut out for long-term academic work.

Among other things (laundry, cleaning, exercise), I’m way behind on this blog. Following are some interesting or possibly helpful posts and articles that have come in while I’ve been off in dissertation land.

How to sort Google search results by date
This June 30 post from Dan Russell at SearchReSearch answered a question that I’d had for a long time: Once you’ve got a list of Google search results, how do you sort them in chronological order? He explains:

Turns out it's not hard, just slightly obscure.

Here's a simple way to do it...  

First, do your search, then limit by time, THEN you can sort the results by date. 

There’s a very detailed example and even a short instructional video. If you’re interested, check it out. Works great.


Bing News
Also back in June, ResearchBuzz had a two-part series titled “Is Bing News Worth Using? (Spoiler: Yes).” (Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.)

The introduction says:

Google News has dominated news search as completely Google has with its Web search. With over 50,000 sources as of 2013,  you might wonder if you need any other free service when you're looking for news.

Yes, you do. And I've got a suggestion for you: Bing News. It looks a bit plain compared to Google News, and hides its features in a frustrating way, but I find that Bing News search can bring you materials that you'd find above and beyond Google News. You just need to know a few tricks to get to them.

There’s a good example detailing how to turn a Bing News results page into an RSS feed, and, even if you don’t use Bing much, you might find some of the tips useful. In a later post, though, ResearchBuzz talks about some of the search results being low quality or junk. (This is a problem I’m seeing more often in Google searches, too, but it’s apparently more pronounced in Bing.)


Investigative Web Research
The Engine Room Library posted this nice, practical introduction to investigative web research. Unlike many such guides you’ll find online, this one was updated in June 2017, making it up to date, relevant, and with working links. I haven’t read through it all yet, but what I’ve seen so far looks good.


The Week in Fact-Checking
I found the article on investigative web research in “The Week in Fact-Checking,” a regular newsletter from the American Press Institute. The page it’s on (July 13, 2017) has other good articles, and you can sign up for their newsletter here.


Deep Web Research Sources
Chris Stobing at Comparitech wrote a good post back in June titled “Using deep web search engines for academic and scholarly research.” This isn’t describing the Dark Web, land of drug dealers and other illicit sites, but the part of the web that’s home to massive databases and information sources that total around 7.5 petabytes. He provides a nice overview of the academic and research sources available, and there are a few more listed in the comments.

These databases are often (but not always) protected by paywalls, of course. About this, Chris says:

If paywalls are a problem for you, one tool we recommend checking out is the Google Chrome browser extension Unpaywall. Unpaywall automatically scours the web for a free version of any content you’re trying to access that says it’s behind a paywall. You may not always get back a free result for every paper you search, however it’s still nice to know the option is there if you need it in a pinch.

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Frank Steele,
Aug 31, 2017, 4:51 PM