Both research papers and infographics usually begin by introducing your topic, leading into a thesis, then supporting that thesis with verifiable information. In both cases, while a weak introduction or thesis can always be improved, a lack of solid information usually means you need to start over. Since we research information for our infographics, interactives, motion graphics, and more every day at Killer Infographics, we frequently encounter challenges like these and are always testing new ways to overcome them.
It’s easy to use a search engine to find all sorts of impressive-sounding stats, but how do you know if they can really be trusted? What makes information fit for use? Here’s a quick list for reference when you’re conducting online research.
1. It’s not afraid to show its roots.
Browsing the web, you’ve probably come across stats prefaced with vague references like “studies show” and “It’s common knowledge that,” and no sources to be found. Take 15 minutes to try to trace those stats and you might find dozens of other websites citing them in the same way. Worse, some sites may attribute the stats to downright incorrect sources, steering you in the wrong direction as the hunt continues.
To complicate things further, citing secondary and tertiary sources (or beyond) increases the chance that a stat has been misrepresented somewhere along the way, sort of like the childhood game of Telephone. As people replicate that misinterpretation, the real stat gets lost.
For the best chance at accurate info, always go back to the primary source. If a blog post cites a press release that cites a study, try to locate that original study. If you can’t find it, the supposed fact just might be fiction — and a great design can’t save a poor story.
2. It’s from the recent past.
In an ideal world, most stats over 18 months old would be considered obsolete. Sadly, information doesn’t usually reproduce that quickly, so it’s okay if you find yourself citing information that’s 1–2 years old or even a bit more. The problem is that if your search for the original source is fruitful, you might discover that it’s actually several years or even decades old.
Advanced search features can come in handy when looking for information from a particular time frame. A good starting point is to limit the search to results from the past year. If you’ve got the time, you could start with an even narrower focus (past month or even past week) and expand from there. Just remember that this restriction will only recognize publication dates of the articles and posts you’re reading — not necessarily the original source of the stats in those articles.
3. You’re allowed to use it.
In most cases, information available on the web or in print can be used and cited as long as it’s done properly — in a way where an interested party can trace the information back. Some companies do have disclaimers preventing their information from being cited or reproduced without following a particular procedure, so don’t forget to look for any red tape before putting that information out into the world.
In some cases, you may be privy to some content that isn’t meant to be publicly available yet — like if you’ve received proprietary information from a client. When this happens, you need to be very mindful of your release date. Check in with your source and wait until after any publication date listed before launching the work to avoid a headache and a damaged client relationship.
The road to accurate, credible information can be long and sometimes disheartening. Just keep this in mind: once you do find those golden stats that are traceable, recent, and fair game for citation, the satisfaction you feel will make you forget all about those fake stats you left behind.