Sometimes finding information of real value on the Internet resembles the search for gold. A shiny nugget in the stream catches the eye of a lucky person and news spreads like wildfire. Soon crowds spend long hours filtering the water for the tiniest specks of gold dust. However, usually only a few find enough gold to make a living. It is the people who supply the food and equipment for the prospectors that strike it rich.
E-gold should be easier to uncover than attempting to find the real thing as depicted by the TV show Gold Rush. However, new ideas for using the Internet are quickly imitated or sometimes deceitfully lifted by claim-jumpers to make someone else rich. (Ever hear of the lawsuit filled life of Steve Zuckerberg? ) Search engines and social networks multiply because those companies that take on the mammoth task of helping us navigate and communicate with each other on the Internet tend to make the most profit.
Still, there are techniques for locating valued information. Internet searches help students practice use of Boolean logic and evaluate sites for reliability. Recently I was trying to help a person tackle the task for locating their own e-gold for creating instructions. My guidance to search for the most unique word in each objective to separate the shinier pyrite (fool’s gold) from the real thing. For example, if the name of the particular scientist was lacking, searching for “discovered DNA ” would bring a flood of ads by companies touting the advantage of DNA testing to discover your your own ancestry. Selling a product has become more important than disseminating information.
So I established a routine. Look in Wikipedia for the main item, and then search the page (using control-F or find function) to locate the other specific word(s). This worked until a person tried to fathom what biological discovery Barbara McClintock made with corn. The word “corn” appeared only in the caption of a photograph in McClintock’s biography. My quick scan showed that “maize” was used instead. However, this particularly talented Nobel prize winner had uncovered many things concerning recombination, ethnobiology etc. using maize that she would had to write an article to answer a simple question.
I you are trying to find data to support or disprove a particular theory there is a price to pay. An upper level biology student who wanted background information for an experiment using FCF Blue 1 to stain plant cells during growth found that research articles on the Internet were too expensive. According to Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz who was indicted for hacking into JSTOR, this money is used to line the pockets of the corporations rather than the researchers.
Getting beyond the pay wall is the new challenge for those doing research without the money to shell out for an adequate information database. We may be encouraging a new generation of hackers, the path followed by many including Steve Jobs .
Photo by Nate Cull, CC 2.0
Wikipedia article Mark Zuckerberg (accessed February 5, 2013)
 Pearce, M. Reddit cofounder Swartz struggled with prosecution before suicide Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2013,
 Crawford, A. Origins, Smithsonian, February 2013, p. 15
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The internet is not free…