There is a wealth of information available to anyone who has access to the Internet: information from all over the world that can be useful for all ages and for all purposes - from academic material to very practical information like door-to-door directions and maps. And the information one can find through the use of this technology can be valuable in zoological research. In addition to the graphical part of the Internet (the World Wide Web), there are many Internet resources that can be accessed, and much of the information in these resources is updated on a regular basis - even daily. While the traditional printed information available in the library is very important, Internet resources should not be neglected.
One advantage in using the Web for research is one's ability to gain access to current information. Since the results of academic research can take months (or years) to reach the published literature, information can be outdated by the time it reaches the shelves of our libraries. Direct access to current information can increase the effectiveness of searching for information in our areas of interest. However, until very recently most of the information made available on the Home Pages of zoos, aquariums and other organizations (e.g., the AZA) has been very similar to materials that had been originally created for public distribution in print form. But while publishing general announcements or information on the World Wide Web is a good way to reach a wide audience, the Web as the "Fourth Media" can be used much more effectively and creatively (Hardy, 1994, 1997). Indeed, the potential of this remarkable technology has yet to be realized.
In addition to general information on the Web about organizations (and their announcements), one can also find information about plant and animal species as well as many other topics relating to conservation. Special programs called Search Engines can be used to retrieve Web documents on any subject. And because of the way that information is presented on a Web page, it often has the appearance of an authoritative source, like a published book. [This is because its HyperText coding enables your browser program to interpret the text and graphics the way the same information would appear in published form.] Perhaps because of the way that information appears on the Web, many people have come to regard the Internet as a huge repository of information on some kind of all-knowing computer. In actuality, the Internet is merely the physical medium over which digital information flows from one computer (Web server) to another (Hardy, 1996). Information in a computer file can be moved rapidly from one computer to another anywhere in the world. While accessing information in this way is efficient and cost-effective, one must always ask: "Where did this information come from in the first place?" Indeed, many people are now expressing considerable misgivings about using the World Wide Web in zoological research because of concerns about the accuracy of information and the legitimacy of its source. I will address this issue later in this paper.
There are other ways to use the Internet to find information in computer files. For example, one can access the Web site of the Consortium of Aquariums, Universities and Zoos. This site provides information submitted by scientists and educators who are engaged in conservation - it can be found at www.selu.com/~bio/cauz/. [The current information for 1997-98 comes from 500 people from 45 countries, one/third of whom have addresses outside the USA or Canada.] The C.A.U.Z. database provides information submitted by people who have special knowledge and expertise about various species of plants and animals and/or are engaged in conservation projects. The Web site contains information about the activities of graduate students, professors, curators, and zookeepers as well as of field biologists and scientists from non-profit organizations and governmental agencies. Individuals visiting the C.A.U.Z. Web site can decide which members of the C.A.U.Z. Network to contact for additional information and/or for possible collaboration. Personal contact with other scientists and educators can give one confidence that the information being shared is accurate/legitimate since one knows its source. [Since 290 of the 500 current network members now have email addresses, communication with them has been greatly facilitated.] In addition to information about interests and projects of the C.A.U.Z. Network members, this Web site provides hundreds of links to organizations involved in conservation. Our Webmaster, Tim Knight, also posts general information and announcements for the conservation community.
When I first began working with students in using the Internet in academic research in 1988, we had little problem in determining accuracy of information. We were confident in our information sources because we used "Gopher" programs in established Internet nodes, usually at university libraries. And most of the information that we found was in the published literature. My students could easily locate sources of information in books and in scientific journals, but since the book chapters and journal articles were copyrighted, they had to obtain the original book or journal article from the library. This was a lot of trouble, but at least we were confident that our information came from legitimate sources.
We are now learning to use the World Wide Web to find information - and it is an entirely new ball game. The advantage of the Web is that in using various Search Engines, we can find information in computer files from all over the world. One can use the CARL UnCover Web site, for example, to locate articles published in many thousands of journals. However, since these journal articles are copyrighted and their full text versions cannot legally be placed on the Web, we must go to the library for the printed versions, just as we have always done. [Or we can pay copyright and service fees and order printed copies from this Web site.] Of course, there are many full text articles now easily accessible on the Web. While some are copyrighted articles for which permission has been given (e.g., my 1996 article in International Zoo News appears on my Home Page with permission of its editor), a lot of information appears on the Web with no permission at all (e.g., information from encyclopedias and reference works that have been scanned into digital files). This violation of copyright is illegal and is, in my view at least, highly unethical. I also have a lot of ethical concerns about people (esp. my students!) using copyrighted information without attributing its source. [This is plagiarism!] One can certainly paraphrase information or give brief quotes from copyrighted material, but one has the obligation to provide a full reference. This is not yet done in most Web documents.
Perhaps more troubling than copyright violations is the fact that a lot of information appears on the Web with no references at all - and often with no indication of the original author or actual source of the information. [Perhaps somebody just made up the information!] Unless it comes from a recognized source like an education department of a zoo or aquarium, we should be doubtful of the validity of this kind of information. In my opinion, the plethora of information provided on the World Wide Web does not make the Web a reliable source of knowledge any more than the print media (e.g., The National Enquirer). I have found that using the Web in academic research requires a great deal of critical thinking and a healthy dose of skepticism. ["Who is this guy anyway?" has become a critical question for my students when they find the name of an author of a Web document that provides no other references.] Conservation-related information - or any kind of information, for that matter - in a file that travels over the Internet from one computer to another is only as valid as its actual source. Indeed, a 12-year-old kid can post information that seems to be credible because of how it looks on a Web page. But its author may know a lot more about HTML coding than he/she knows about science!
I fear that people who are not familiar with this technology may not be as concerned as I am about the source of information posted on the Web. For example, a lot of generic information about animals can easily be found on the Web, and much of it is placed there by zoo/aquarium education departments. However, it is often very difficult to find out where the information originated and references are often omitted. [Perhaps this is because the information may be intended for children, who are probably less concerned with the accuracy of information than are adults.] But while this information may indeed be valid, I believe that we should maintain a healthy skepticism about information unless there is a reference to a published source. [And many of us are most comfortable if it comes from a publication that is a refereed scholarly journal like Zoo Biology.]
When you find information on the Web, it is important to ask yourself where the information came from. Look for the name of the author of the document and go to the end of the document to look for journal or book references that you can later verify. If other studies are referenced in the document, verify them by checking the traditional print literature in the library (in their indexes or on their CD ROM's) or by using CARL UnCover, MELVYL or other information resources available on the Internet. Checking the 'domain' in the URL of a document may also be very useful. Although many people assume that documents from domains with ".edu," ".org" or ".gov" are from more legitimate sources than documents from ".com," all documents found on the Web need to be authenticated. Documents appearing in (or linked to) legitimate Web Sites (like the Home Page of the American Psychological Association - www.apa.org) are probably the most reliable. But a researcher has the obligation to confirm the accuracy and source of all information appearing on the World Wide Web.
One of the best features of using the Internet for research is its convenience. With the use of an Internet Service Provider (or Online Service) and a high-speed modem, one can conduct research on the Web from the comfort and convenience of one's own home. And knowing ahead of time which references in the published literature are needed, one's time spent in the library can be much more productive.
One advantage in using the World Wide Web as a means of conducting research is that it lets one look at specific topics from an interdisciplinary perspective. Due to the large volume of published literature in the library, researchers have had a tendency to restrict their quest for information to their own specific fields when they search for references. By doing so, they may have been restricting themselves to a single discipline and may have little idea of the kind of studies in other fields that may be helpful. In looking for information on the Web, searches are often more general in nature and may help one locate information that otherwise may not have been found.
In addition to the advantage in using the Web for accessing current information, the Web is an excellent way for an institution to distribute zoological information as well as its own educational materials. And the World Wide Web has made it possible for individuals to contact authors quite easily if they have provided an email link. This ease of communication is a tremendous advantage for those who are beginning researchers since they are often able to get valuable advice/guidance from an author who has posted information on the Web. [This also applies to the names one finds at the C.A.U.Z. Web site.]
One big disadvantage in using the Web for zoological research may be the overwhelming amount of information that is available. When searching for information on the Web, one easily can get hundreds (and even thousands!) of "hits." One can easily get lost in the seemingly infinite amount of titles, abstracts and texts - and HyperText links. One way to stay focussed is by writing on a piece of paper exactly what one is looking for - and attaching this paper below one's computer monitor where it stays in view. [It may also be very important to give oneself a limited amount of time searching the Web to keep from "drowning in Cyberspace!"] Since the amount of information on the Web can be overwhelming, a successful researcher must often use efficient and creative search strategies. Much of the information obtained may not be directly useful for research purposes, so the researcher must carefully sift through the various files in order to find useful information resources.
The problem of finding too much information on the Web can usually be solved by narrowing the topic down as much as possible. For example, key words or names that were first located in published articles or newspapers (sometimes found with LEXIS/NEXIS searches) can serve as starting points from which additional or related information can be located on the Web. It is also helpful to select the appropriate Search Engine. You may find that some Search Engines are more useful for some subjects while other Search Engines are more appropriate for other subjects. [WebCrawler seems to be a good Search Engine to use for general or non-academic information, while Alta Vista and Lycos usually provide the best information for academic topics.]
And, of course, one must address the problem of the questionable origin of some of the information found on the Web: it may be difficult to authenticate the validity of the information. This problem can be partly resolved by using Web sources that have strong academic ties (e.g., the Monterey Bay Aquarium) or are provided as links from recognized Web sites like the AZA. Or by using information that is placed on the Web by someone who is well-known and respected in his/her field.
Because of the questionable reliability of some of the information available on the Web, a researcher must always be cautious about the information obtained. It is important to follow up the information gathered through the Web by using traditional sources of research information, such as published articles in recognized journals. If one is unfamiliar with the author of a Web document, one should consider performing a search for the author's name or document title in other sources (e.G., LEXIS/NEXIS, CARL UnCover, MELVYL) to verify the credentials of the author. [Using the name of an author of a Web document to search in CARL UnCover is one way to find other articles he/she may have published. And one may be able find out what books an author has published by entering his/her name in MELVYL. Finally, a LEXIS/NEXIS search may help to locate any newspaper or magazine articles about the author.] By using a link to the author's personal Home Page, one can often find a complete list of papers published by that author as well as information on journal articles that have been accepted for publication (or are under review) but not yet in print. And visiting the Web site of the author's institution may be another way to verify his/her credentials as well as to find the author's email address.
One last point: on issues that are subject to bias (e.g., keeping marine mammals in captivity), you need to look at the address of the document to see what organization wrote it or put it on the Web. This will help you to evaluate a document that seems to contain one-sided information. But even if you feel strongly about a particular subject and have a difficult time reading information with which you do not agree, perhaps you can make a more intelligent argument for your own point of view if you are better informed about all the sides of an issue, not only your own.
There is a wealth of information on the World Wide Web that many people engaging in zoological research do not yet take advantage of. Just like the information in scientific journals and in conference proceedings, the Web should be viewed as one more resource of information when one is conducting research. With the use of browser programs like Netscape Navigator, zoo and aquarium professionals now have easy access to a wealth of information that may be very useful. And Web resources like the C.A.U.Z. Web site provide convenient "launching pads" into relevant information sources on the Internet. Careful and diligent use of Search Engines can provide additional Web resources. Following print, radio and television as the Fourth Media for mass communication, the World Wide Web has great potential for people engaged in scientific research.
Computer-Mediated Communication is still in its infancy and the interactive capability of the Internet has not yet been fully explored. Only now are some of the more innovative means of communicating beginning to evolve, one of which is HyperNews, a means by which zoo and aquarium professionals can exchange information through Web pages. New applications of this technology are being used in conservation and science projects. For example, live images are being transmitted over the Internet from video cameras ("cams") that can be controlled remotely, and with these "cams" and satellite links, researchers can now monitor the activities of animals anywhere in the world. The recent commercial availability of relatively inexpensive hardware and software now makes it possible for people to utilize visual and voice communication via the Internet in "real time" - rather like a two-way Internet "video-phone" (or Internet phone). And video conferencing can now take place over the Internet between participants from all over the world. Only the future will tell how these extraordinary advances in communications technology will be used in zoological research.