Do you remember life BW (Before Web)? Whatever did we do? Well, wasted a whole lot less time, probably. Like me you doubtless know that the Web is full of incredibly valuable information (5 minutes browsing round Next Wave ought to convince you of that!), but you may also have the sneaking suspicion that you're not really making full use of it. If you're more likely to log-on to shop for CDs than for help with your research you could be missing out. The Internet has the potential to make you a better researcher and teacher. The trick is to home in on the facts you need, without getting sidetracked by the weird and wonderful or spending hours trawling through sites that have nothing to do with your area of interest. After all, "culture" means very different things to a cell biologist and a media luvvy.
The Resource Discovery Network (RDN) is a series of subject-specific gateways, set up by and for the UK academic community. As with any search engine, you need to type in a keyword to begin your hunt, but the list of sites returned to you will all have been vetted by academics for the quality and accuracy of their content. Using the 'Advanced Search' feature allows you to specify the type of information you want, for example, journal articles, event announcements or teaching resources. Biome, the health and life sciences gateway, is already fully functional, while PSIgate, which covers physical sciences, is up-and-running in prototype and will be officially launched in September.
But what if the hubs of the RDN don't throw up the information you need? You may yet have to broaden your search. Helping students, researchers and lecturers make the best use of the Web is the aim of the RDN's Virtual Training Suite. Lodged here are 40 online tutorials on Internet information skills tailored for different disciplines: Internet Chemist, Internet Physicist and Internet Bioresearcher, for example. The introductory blurb claims that completing a tutorial will take about an hour, but as the level they're pitched at is fairly basic, anyone who has spent much time using the Web already will zip through the introductory tour in no time. One nice feature of the tutorials is that, being aimed at a given subject area, all the examples given are relevant to the field, so you're likely to come across some good sites you didn't know about before. And here's something which I thought was an excellent idea: instead of getting distracted from the tutorial to look at them straightaway, you can add these interesting-looking sites to a 'links basket' (just like the shopping basket you'd use when you're buying those CDs online) to unpack when you've finished.
The review section of the tutorial covers the critical thinking skills that can help you assess the quality of information you find on the Web, as well as the common pitfalls of using the Internet (such as the incredible amount of time you can waste!). I found it refreshing that online tutorials were at such pains to point out that the Internet should not always be your first port of call -- horses for courses is the message here. Each tutorial concludes with a series of three case studies demonstrating how a student, a researcher and a lecturer can use the web to help with their projects or teaching. And if, now that you're an expert, you do discover useful information, you'll want to follow the tips on how to cite Internet resources. What are you waiting for? Every scientist should be using a mouse in their research!