How to Do Online Research

Research Paper WritingThe abundance of online sources for research papers can be overwhelming. Today the problem is not how to find material when doing a research paper but how to work your way through the thousands (or even millions) of pages that turn up in your search. Enter a search word or phrase about a any topic into Google, Bing, or whatever your favorite search engine might be, and in seconds you will be presented with pages upon pages of two-line summaries of articles that contain it. Google and other search engines “weight” the results by putting the most likely matches at the top, but the chore of finding the perfect source to meet your research needs is still left to you.

Searching the Web

The Internet presents a vast number of widely distributed resources covering thousands of topics and providing many options for research in many fields. Often there is so much information that you may not know where to begin. Or maybe you haven’t been able to locate what you’re seeking.

When you do your search, don’t expect something that you found today to be there tomorrow—or even an hour later. If you find material and need it, keep a copy of it. It’s not enough to write down the address and plan on locating the site later.

Unfortunately, the  internet is not like a library where information has been arranged within an accepted set of rules. It’s more like a garage sale, where items of similar nature are usually grouped together—but not always. As a result, you’ll find treasures side-by-side with spam. And like a garage sale, the method of organization on the web shifts constantly. So how can you search online for information to use in your research paper? There are several different ways, each of them surprisingly easy. Here’s how they work.

Using Search Engines

A search engine is a computer program that finds information stored on a computer system such as the internet. Some search engines have also been designed for corporate and proprietary networks. The search engine allows the user to ask for content meeting specific search criteria and retrieves a list of references that match those criteria.

Search engines that work with keywords help you locate Web sites. You type in a keyword and the search engine automatically looks through its giant databases for matches. The more specific the word or phrase, the better your chances of finding the precise information you need. For example, if you’re interested in a college, don’t use “college” as a keyword. You’ll get millions and millions of responses. Instead, name a specific college, such as “Texas State University.” This will send to you the precise web page you need.

Google is, no doubt, the most used and, certainly, the best-known search engine in the world. The question for researchers who use it and other search engines that scan the entire internet is: How reliable is the information? One thing you need to know when you do Internet research is that anyone can publish anything on the Web. For that reason, it can be very difficult to determine if the articles you find are based on complete, factual, and reliable information. It is not always easy to determine whether the article you are reading makes conclusions based on facts or on other factors, such as advertising or promotion, that account for it being on the Web. E-commerce sites, for instance, are in the business of selling products. Political sites are in the business of selling ideas. The information on them may be what you are looking for but it may also be slanted to promote a particular product, agenda, or point of view. Search engines, such as Google, will find what you are looking for but they cannot evaluate the material to ensure it is acceptable for a research paper.

Google offers a number of specialized look-up features that help you control the search. Google Scholar, for instance, offers you a quick way to search across many different academic sources, including scholarly articles from academic journals and publishers, professional societies, and university Web sites. Google News provides access to 25,000 news sources. Google Books offers full-text searches of books, as well as related book reviews and other Web references to the books.

Most web search engines are commercial ventures supported by advertising revenue; as a result, some allow advertisers to pay to have their listings ranked higher in search results. This makes your research more difficult and time-consuming because you have to sift through irrelevant information. Those search engines that don’t charge for their results make money by running ads on their pages.

Utilizing Keyword Searches

Strategies for conducting a successful online research differ according to whether you are accessing publications through the databases of an academic library or using a popular search engine, such as Google. College students are encouraged to conduct their searches through their university’s academic library. University search engines access catalogs of print sources, as well as print publications that are available in electronic format, including CDs, DVDs, and other multimedia resources that are available through the library network. They also provide access to electronic databases of publications that are available only to member libraries and research institutions.

Institutional search engines, such as those offered through your university, high school, or library system typically offer options for online research. These typically include quick look-ups under subject indexes, names of journals and databases, by authors and titles, and by keywords. This multiplicity of search mechanisms and the various resource catalogs and databases needed to access them can be confusing to newbies. A few moments spent with a campus librarian who can orient you to the various search mechanisms can save you hours later.

Simple online browsing can be useful when you do not have access to an academic library. Keywords describe your research paper topic and can be combined in different ways to target and narrow your search. The search engine will look for those words throughout the text of many different articles and deliver a listing of the results in short summaries that can stretch on for pages. The search engine will find all references in the article and the words you are looking for may or may not be together. Using search operators, such as quotation marks around the exact phrase you want to find, and the words and, or, and not, can help you narrow the search and zero in on the pages that will be of greatest interest to you.

Phrases for Keyword Searches

  • Acronyms: You can use acronyms to find organizations,technologies, and scientific references. For example: CDC (Centers for Disease Control), CDR (compact digital recorder), USC (University of Southern California).
  • Alternate spellings: You can use alternate and “sound-alike” spellings when you are unsure of names or the exact spelling of other terms. For examples: Gabriel LaBoiteaux, LaBoytoe, Labertew.
  • Quotation marks (” “): You can use quotation marks to restrict your search to exact names and unique phrases inside the quotes. For example: “Patrick Henry,” “American Revolution,” “Give me liberty or give me death.”
  • And: You can use and to find articles that include both of the
    terms that it links. For example: “Patrick Henry” and “Give me liberty or give me death.” This search will find only articles in which Patrick Henry’s name and the full phrase,” Give me liberty or give me death,” appear.
  • Or: You can use or to find articles that include one term or the other. For example: “Patrick Henry” or “Give me liberty or give me
    death.” This search will find articles that mention Patrick Henry, articles that include the phrase,”Give me liberty or give me death,” and articles that include both.
  • Not … and not: Use not or and not to deliberately exclude terms from your search. For example: “Patrick Henry” not “Give me liberty or give me death”. This search will find articles that mention Patrick Henry but will exclude articles where his name appears with the phrase,”Give me liberty or give me death.”

Using Databases

A database is a collection of related material stored in a computer in a systematic way so that a computer program can consult it to answer questions. Libraries pay fees to subscribe to specialized databases. You can access these databases in person in the library; increasingly, you can also access these databases for free off-site through the library’s portal. The information in these databases has been vetted, so they provide higher-quality information. A library’s databases saves you time, too, because you are not sifting through commercial sites, as you do with a search engine. Databases such as Academic Search PremierThe Encyclopedia BritannicaEBSCOhostProQuest, and Lexis/Nexis offer access to a wide range of scholarly articles and journals that would otherwise require an ID and password for access.

Wikipedia

Started in 2001, Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia. Wikipedia is unique because it’s written collaboratively by volunteers, allowing most articles to be changed by almost
anyone with access to the Web site. A 2005 comparison by the science journal Nature of sections of Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Brittanica found that the two were close in terms of the accuracy of their articles on the natural sciences. Nonetheless, there are serious issues over Wikipedia’s reliability and accuracy, with the site receiving criticism for the following problems:

  • susceptibility to vandalism
  • bias
  • spoof (fake) articles
  • questionable information
  • uneven quality and inconsistency
  • preference for popularity over credentials
  • poor writing
  • lack of proper sources to legitimize articles

Wikipedia can be a valuable reference tool, but use it with care. Remember that the articles can be written by anyone: 80-year-old Ph.D.’s to 8-year-old cybergeeks.

Identifying Reputable Online Sources

No matter how you access articles on the Internet, you should critically evaluate every publication you identify as a possible source in your research to determine its acceptability. Web sites for companies and special interest groups may provide a vast amount of information on your topic but, if the purpose of the Web site is to sell products related to the topic or advocate a particular position or point of view, it may not be useful for your purposes.

A discussion about the prognosis for those suffering from pancreatic cancer that appears on the Web site of the American Cancer Society, for instance, would be considered reliable for someone writing a research paper for a nursing class. However, if the discussion appeared on a commercial Web site of a company selling a purported miracle cure, it would not. It is important to identify who is publishing the article and why.

When you find an article, however, it is often difficult to determine just how well-informed the author was and how reliable the information is. Too often, the writers of the information and articles you find on a site are not even identified. So how do you determine how authoritative an article is?

Frequently, we can make that determination based on what we have already learned from our research. Ask yourself: Is this information consistent with what I have found elsewhere? Does it logically follow what I have already learned? If it does not and you still would like to use the information in your research paper, expand your research to see if you can find other sources that  support or confirm what it says.

Find out a bit about the author. Look for a biography next to, or at the bottom of, the article. Sometimes, the author’s byline is hot-linked to a biography on another Web page. Avoid using unreferenced blog posts and other sources by unnamed authors or authors using anonymous or fictitious “handles.”

It is also useful to know what type of Web site domain the article is from.The type of domain is indicated by the three-letter extension that follows the “dot” at the beginning of the Web address where the article is located. Common domain types include commercial (com), educational (edu), governmental (gov), and organizational (org). The official Web site of the U.S. president, for instance, is http://www.whitehouse.gov where the .gov stands for government. The official site of the American Cancer Society is http://www.cancer.orgwhere the .org stands for organization.

Be especially wary of sites with extensions that are not consistent with the nature of the site. While gov means that you have arrived on a government-sponsored site, for instance, com usually means that you have arrived at a privately sponsored commercial site.

Other clues at the Web site will be helpful. To get a sense of how well-researched or fact-checked an article may be, check for citations and hyperlinks that refer to sources with additional reading. These can include previously published articles, graphics, maps, and hyperlinks to outside references.

Publication dates are also important. Not only do they indicate how timely the information in the article is, but they provide a historical context when you need one. A report quoting eye-witnesses to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the event that sparked the U.S. entry into World War II,may provide more specific
details about the events as they unfolded than an analysis of events that was published 40 years later. Online newspapers and magazines usually include a “dateline” that identifies the date of publication at the top of the story, just under the headline. “Last updated” and copyright notices that appear at the bottom of Web pages can also help you identify when an article was published. If you have chosen a topic that demands up-to-date information, such as the United States’ evolving policy toward stem cell research, it is often best to avoid articles where you cannot determine a date of publication.

How to Identify Good Online Sources

  • Does it come from a source my audience will recognize as an authority on the subject?
  • Does it meet the requirements of the assignment?
  • Will it meet my instructor’s expectations?
  • Am I getting facts or opinion?
  • Does the information have a commercial purpose? Is it advertising, a press release, or promotional copy?
  • Do the author’s arguments seem logical, or do they overgeneralize or oversimplify?
  • How well researched was the article?
  • Are the sources of the article’s information evident? What are they?
  • What is the author’s name? Avoid using sources by unnamed authors or authors using anonymous or fictitious “handles.”
  • What is the person’s background? Does the author possess the experience, education, or authority to comment intelligently on the subject?
  • Who is the publisher or the sponsoring organization?
  • If it is an organization, what is its mission?
  • When was the article written?
  • Based on what you already know, does the article appear to make exaggerated claims?

Useful Research Sites

Academic

Business

Government

News

Other Great Places on the Web

No one is an expert on every facet of the Internet—it’s impossible. While many people are skilled with the tools and have a good idea where to look for information on many research paper topics, no one can keep up with the information flow. Fortunately, you don’t have to understand everything to use the Internet quickly and easily. All you need are a computer and the time to explore different paths.

Using Offline Libraries

Your own questions can guide your research by showing you what kind of information you need. You also can see how your research questions give you an idea of how your paper might take shape.