Search as a Starting Point for Science Queries

The Internet as primary a source for science-related news and information is second only to TV among the general population. A report released jointly by the Pew Internet &American Life Project and Exploratorium, “The Internet as a Resource for News and Information about Science,” finds that 40 million Americans use the Internet as a primary source for science-related news and information.

Eighty-seven percent of the U.S. online population has used the Internet to find information on a scientific topic or concept at least once. It’s used as a primary source in this subject area by 40 million Americans. U.S. Internet users look to the Web for many reasons:

  • Find the meaning of a scientific concept
  • Answer a specific science question
  • Learn more about a scientific breakthrough
  • Help complete a school assignment
  • Check the accuracy of a scientific fact
  • Download scientific data
  • Compare opposing scientific theories

“People’s use of the Internet for science information has a lot to do with the Internet’s convenience as a research tool, but it also connected people’s growing dependence on the Internet for information of all types,” said John Horrigan, associate director at Pew Internet.

Search is the most-used aggregation method for finding science-related information. Pew Internet asked about research in three topics: stem cell research, global warming, and the origin of life. With all three groups combined, about 90 percent of respondents said they route their queries through search engines. Individually, searches beginning at search engines amounted to 87 percent of stem cell research queries; 93 percent of global warming queries; and 91 percent of origin of life queries.

Users frequent certain sites dedicated to science topics or with dedicated sections, such as (31 percent); (28 percent); National (23 percent); (23 percent); (19 percent); Smithsonian Institution Web site (14 percent); (10 percent); and (9 percent). Even when specific sites are targeted, users often visit search engines to locate information.

“Often times, people will know where they want to go, say it’s, but instead of going to bookmarks, they go to the search engine. The search engine functions as a notepad that tells them how to get there instead of driving someone to some unplanned destination,” said Horrigan.

For health-related queries, a recent study release by Pew Internet finds many searchers neglected to source the information they were finding. In the case of science, many searchers do look for the source and verify findings elsewhere, says Horrigan.

“A lot of this searching is going on with a purpose in mind, if you have an assignment for school or are helping a kid, you are going to take those few steps to find out about the source,” he said.

“One differentiating factor, if you’re doing some health searches to get information, in all likelihood you have an expert to verify information,” Horrigan continued. “With science, you may be scratching an itch of your own or doing a school project. You’re going to have to take that burden in vetting information.”

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