Every June, the University of Alberta hosts Women's Words - a week long writing extravaganza. This year, I had the privilege of teaching a course on writing children's nonfiction. Among my students were several teachers, a librarian, a biologist and a civil engineer.
We spent the whole second lecture on research techniques. First, an overview of the kinds of information sources writers can use. Then a discussion of the way different sources are perceived and weighed by editors. Finally, we talked about how many sources the average 800-word article requires. When I told them that articles I've written about DNA - a subject on which I can reasonably be considered an expert - reference about a dozen sources, my students gaped at me in horror. It's a look resulting from the kind of mental math I've trained myself not to do - hours of work divided by potential financial compensation can be a pretty unhappy equation.
But it comes down to this. Nonfiction writers deal in facts. And if you only consult one source, how do you know the facts it contains are accurate?
The type of source can be a clue - experts in the field, archival documents, and government websites are arguably pretty trustworthy. There's no substitute, however, for independent confirmation.
About five days after my course ended, I signed my first book contract - to write four children's books on animal migration in a little over three weeks. Consequently, I've been doing a lot of research in a real big hurry. Despite the need for speed, the concept of "independent confirmation" has been foremost.
I always start my research online. It's a great way to get an overview of a subject, and to identify the kinds of sources - books, professional papers, experts - I prefer to rely on. So I'm surfing the web in search of wildebeests and discover an odd thing: the same paragraph, verbatim, on more than a dozen sites. An hour's hard googling revealed that the paragraph originated with the IUCN Red List - a reputable source if ever there was one. But despite being splashed all over the internet, it's still a single source.
Teachers, including myself, warn their students not to plagiarize. We also warn our students about the potential bias and inaccuracy of unedited online sources. The problem of accurate information appearing in multiple places is a more subtle one, but something all researchers, be they student or science writer, need to watch out for.
As a reward for anyone who read all the way through, I give you a well-confirmed wildebeest fact: 250,000 wildebeest calves are born in less than three weeks. That is 12,000 calves per day, or 500 calves every hour!