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Magazines > ONLINE > March/April 2007
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Vol. 31 No. 2 — Mar./Apr. 2007

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Dangerous Assumptions
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

It’s human nature to make assumptions. We hear or read something and assume it’s true (or untrue) based on our previous experience or on how the information is presented. This can be dangerous. Even mainstream media have been known to report a story as true when its source is The Onion, a satirical publication. End users assume they have retrieved the most relevant, current information when they scan the first 10 hits from a Google, Yahoo!, or Ask.com search. Researchers think they’ve found a person they’re looking for without realizing that it’s someone else with the same name. When researching on the Web, students confuse India’s architectural wonder, the Taj Mahal, with a U.S. hotel and casino. These are dangerous assumptions.

Even information professionals who should know better sometimes assume. We search in a premium content database, believing it contains all the important publications in the field it covers. We should remember that publisher licensing agreements dictate which magazines, journals, and newsletters appear in these databases. This affects not only entire titles, but individual articles within publications. Syndicated columns are a prime example of information you can read in your daily printed newspaper that likely will not be part of its online equivalent.

Sometimes print is more current than online. As I write this, I’m looking at a computer magazine bearing the cover date of Feb. 6, 2007. When I go to the Web site, it tells me the “current issue” is Jan. 16, 2007. When I look for a specific article (“A Threat to Web Search,” by John C. Dvorak, in which he speculates about how dangerous search will be if search engine companies controlled results), it’s not at the publication’s Web site. Neither is it on Dialog, InfoTrac, Nexis, or Factiva. If I weren’t looking at the physical object, I’d assume Dvorak didn’t publish this. Strangely enough, the article is available for purchase ($1) at KeepMedia. What inside track does it have? I should add that, by the time you read this editorial, the article should be available through all of the above outlets. Or at least I’m assuming that will be true.

It’s not just where we search but how we search that affects our results. End users want to believe that entering one to two words in a search box is sufficient. Information professionals assume that if they carefully compose a search strategy using Boolean operators, they will retrieve superior results. You can’t type backdating options into a Web search engine and receive the rich results Amy Affelt (pp. 39–41) does using her complex search strings. In the cover story for this issue, K. Matthew Dames (pp. 16–20) shows us how our assumptions regarding the creation of copyright law are wrong.

Educating information professionals to be search experts, a topic tackled by Susan S. DiMattia (pp. 34–38), is widely debated. Should library school students learn traditional or Web search techniques? To my mind, they should learn both, understand the differences, and think critically about results. Most importantly, teach them not to assume.


Marydee Ojala [marydee@xmission.com] is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@xmission.com.

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