November 12th, 2008

Finding Statistics Online

Numbers are powerful things. A simple statistic can help frame your argument or make an important point. They can be a great addition to a paper or discussion post, but they are often difficult to find online. Sure, you can find lots of numbers out there, but how often do you see the exact number you were hoping for?

Why is it so hard to get the statistics you want?

  • It costs money to compile them. Producers want to be paid for them, so they aren’t always available for free.
  • Someone may not have researched your specific question. You may be interested in how many homemade pancakes are made in Georgia each year, but that doesn’t mean someone else spent the time and money to conduct that survey.
  • Statistics are often kept secret by businesses. Perhaps General Mills knows exactly how many pancakes are made in Georgia, but they aren’t telling. That kind of knowledge can help companies position and market themselves, and they aren’t going to let their competitors get that type of information for free.
  • Statistics may not be comparable over time. One good example of this is the U.S. Census Bureau’s changing measurements of race. As America changes, the census includes different categories. But they can’t go back in time to make the old data categories match the new.

So, what are some things you can do to help find the statistics you want?

  • Search FedStats for Federal Government Statistics.
  • Get to know the government agencies that collect statistics in your field. Some examples are the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Check newspaper articles. Many include statistics as well as the source.
  • Look at professional organizations. Organizations often produce reports about the fields they represent, and many will be available online.
  • Search the web using keywords such as data or statistics.

As a new person in your field, it can be hard to find the statistics you want. But as you learn more about research in your field, you’ll become aware of what statistics exist and who produces them.

- Erin

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