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Researcher's Paradise

More Conducting Research With Newsgroups

Researcher's Paradise Written by Mark Pierce

Last time we began talking about using newsgroups as a possible tool for Internet research. I explained the various groups were organized by areas of interest, using a naming scheme called hierarchies that indicates to users which type of group they are connected to.

But before we delve into that material too deeply, let me digress a bit. You may be asking how a bunch of bulletin board notes could help you with your research task, which is good, because it really is the central question relative to this discussion. The answer to your question is this: newsgroups, except for a few of the more frivolous ones, like, and, are really a lot more than just a bunch of strung together notes you can drag onto your desktop. In terms of research, they are powerful tools that connect you to a group of people whom you could have never met in any other way, and for whom your subject is a primary consideration.

Let me give you an example. I do a lot of writing for radiology magazines. It is a highly complex field, and there are changes going on all the time. Since one of my main tasks as a writer is to inform, it's imperative that I keep up with these changes. One big way that I do that is through radiology newsgroups. When I sign on to for example, I know that I'll be corresponding with a huge, multidisciplinary, multinational cross section of people associated with the field. Often papers of interest, or sections of them, are presented there.

If I don't see what I want there, I often post a note to the group asking for help with finding what I need. Usually after posting a query of that sort, I'll set my computer to download my mail and selected newsgroups overnight, and hey presto! I have a response when I sit at my machine in the morning. US Postal employees waiting for that fat pension check would do well to take heed. The kind of speed and accuracy the net provides in terms of communication delivery may soon cause a merciful end to the bloated government bureaucracy of which the post office is a particularly obvious example.

Now, I don't mean to imply that what I find on newsgroups eliminates going to the library, because it doesn't. Instead, what it does is make my time there a great deal more productive. Say for instance I wanted to do a piece on spiral CT scanning, a relatively new, ultra fast imaging technique. Well, let me tell you, the medical library is packed with information on that subject. It can be mighty intimidating to stare a stack of medical texts in the face when you've got a deadline looming.

But if I use newsgroups first I usually don't have that problem. Before I ever jump in the truck to drive to the university, I will have already corresponded with some of the strongest minds in the field, and they will have assisted me in narrowing my focus sufficiently to make my time at the library relatively hassle free.

We've talked about some basic terms you might encounter, ways to get around, and a little about strategies you might use to get the job done more effectively. For the benefit of the relatively inexperienced user, I should mention that while the Usenet can be a powerful asset in the process of gathering information, sometimes in actual practice its all inclusive nature can act as an unintentional fortress against obtaining one's research objective.

Simply put, there's just so much information out there, in so many places and in so many different forms, that instead of you jauntily downloading reams of erstwhile arcane facts and figures, many 'would be' researchers end up in a sweating, frustrated heap, cursing the black day they plunked down two or three grand for that pile of plastic and wire that was supposed to be so helpful, but has thus far acted the role of expensive paperweight.

If this is you, supplicant net searcher, fear not. There is an answer to your dilemma.

As was already mentioned, one reliable way to narrow the focus of a newsgroup search is to locate the appropriate hierarchy concerning your desired topic. Also known as heritage's, hierarchies are Usenet's way of generally classifying the nature of the discussion going on inside a group.

Remember, Usenet utilizes a multipart naming scheme to identify various groups. For example, alt. amazon.women.admirers is a group, comprised, mainly of men I would imagine, whose interests involve the gathering of information, and binary files ( pictures ), of women a guy can really look up to. In this example alt., which is short for alternative, is the hierarchy. Similarly, a group called sci.image.processing contains discussions that relate to various methods of producing scientifically related images. Sci., short for science, is the hierarchy. Get the picture? The second and third level names, image and processing, further describe the group specifics. Generally speaking, the longer the qualifying descriptions, the more narrow the focus of the group.

Parenthetically, the alt. grouping is almost certainly the largest of the hierarchies, containing a baffling array of interests--everything from alt.baldspot to alt . . . well, you get the idea.

Inside the groups itself, topics are further arranged by subclassifications of ideas called threads. Opening any group, you will find each batch of postings, or news, arranged in outline form according to the thread it belongs to. To illustrate, consider the following: A group called alt. food taco.bell has threads that go like this:

99Cent Tacos, WOW!-- under which there will be some number of entries in which restaurateurs and gaunt, malnourished teenagers describe their general amazement that such a bargain exists at all on the food chain. Underneath that, the next thread might be, somewhat predictably, Free Pepsi Refills, WOW! Most software allows point and click access to threads, and most will also allow you to predetermine any thread you want to avoid.

Here are a few of the major hierarchies, which relate to the more down-to-business side of Usenet. Hopefully one will stir up some interest.

Hepnet: A collection of networks that connect high energy and nuclear physics research sites. Topics include discussions of UNIX, job postings, video conferencing, conferences and workshops, as well as items of general interest.

Bionet: Similar in nature to hepnet, except the groups cover biological science.

Sci: In general, this grouping is a veritable fountain of sources and information. Nearly any scientific discipline can be found here, and discussions tend to be substantive.

Comp: A grouping dedicated to the ins and outs of the computer culture. Discussions here can lean toward the geeky, however, if you've got a problem with your machine or you want to try to do something with it and you don't know how, chances are good these are the geeks you need.

Humanities: Far ranging discussions of interest in the arts and humanities.

Next time I'll talk more about some groups that might merit your attention, as well as discuss newsgroup search tools on the net.

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