One of the most important resources for professionals, students, and anyone looking to do research on almost any topic today is the internet. Research materials and resources are available to anyone. Purdue notes that searching online can be beneficial, but it can also be frustrating due to the overwhelming amount of information on the internet.
Understanding how to find, evaluate, cite, and use the information you need online is a fantastic skill. The Pew Research Center notes that we are online more than ever, so it makes sense to properly utilize something that we already use so frequently.
Once you know what you’re looking for, you can start to find information on the internet for your online research. There are several different ways to go about this.
A search engine is exactly what it sounds like. It is a software system or program that searches for information on the internet based on the search terms you entered. There are literally thousands of search engines, both general in nature and more specific, like search engines for flights or hotels. Consumer Reports notes that Google is the most used search engine, but that there are many comparable search engines that use similar algorithms.
Search Operators are symbols or several symbols used to narrow a search. For example, according to MIT, you can do a ranged search with three dots, like “number…number” and your results should only include numbers between that range. You could search “$500…$700 computers” and your results would be computers in that price range.
These narrowing tools can be very helpful, especially when sifting through large amounts of results. Montana State University at Billings notes that these shortcut words are easy to find and can easily help you narrow any searches.
Academic or Scientific Search Engines
Academic or scientific search engines can be especially helpful for those doing research for school or work. Rasmussen College gives a basic list of great academic search engines, and Worldcat allows you to look up books, articles, or almost any work – academic or not – via their search engine. Many schools even allow books from other libraries that you find on Worldcat to be sent to your library.
World Wide Science provides a multilingual search engine for science journals, and Science.org has a comprehensive search for science terms and materials, making science easy and convenient to access.
Open Access Journal Databases
One of the frustrating things about looking for academic sources can be the walls put up by search engines and databases that require you to pay for access to their materials. Many universities and companies pay for these subscriptions, but if you don’t have access to these resources, there are some open access journal databases available, such as the directories of Open Access Journals and JURN.
Google Scholar has an astounding number of free open access books, journal articles, and more available to search. Many large libraries, like the Folger Shakespeare Library, have also digitized much of their collections and allow for searching of both digital and print materials they have under their provenance. These can be great resources for research and academic study.
Finding sources, especially when using the right search engines and search operators, can become easier and easier. When you find a great source of useful information, one of the most important things to do is evaluate its credibility. Columbia University notes that if you’re using your search results to back up an argument, then you need to make sure that source is credible.
Questions to Ask Yourself
There are questions to ask when you find a credible source. The American Press Institute notes that you should ask yourself several things when doing research. When you find a source, you need to make sure you understand it before using it.
You should always ask:
- Is the site trustworthy? Often the most trustworthy sites will have .org, .gov, or .edu addresses, but you can also look at the “about” page on many sites or do a quick search to see if you can trust their materials.
- Who is the target audience? One of the most important things in understanding sources is understanding who it was written for. The University of Kentucky notes that understanding the audience can help you understand who the source is supposed to appeal to. That can help you make an informed decision about its credibility.
- Who wrote the information? Is it written by an academic or expert, or is it a personal blog?
- Who sponsors the website? Knowing who is paying for the source you’ve found to appear in the public domain helps you understand what the agenda behind the source is.
- Is the information timely? An article that came out 50 years ago may be useful, but should also be understood in its own context. Also, old content on a never-updated website may be a sign of trouble.
- Is this the original source? The University of North Florida notes that original research and original sources are called primary sources. If you are reading something that isn’t a primary source, and you can’t track the source, you may want to note that as a mark against the source’s credibility!
Asking these questions can help you determine if your online research is useful and valid, and will ultimately strengthen any arguments you make!
Special Requirement for Academic or Scientific Research
Journalist’s Resource notes that academic and scientific research often has a higher standard for sources, and academics generally ask more questions of their sources. For these types of research, especially when done on the internet, more caution and more questions must be applied to sources, according to Georgetown University.
Citing Sources and Using Content
Any sources that are not your own or “common knowledge” must be cited. Citing a source simply means giving proper credit to the person who wrote it, whether you are directly quoting or just paraphrasing an idea. Common knowledge, according to Penn State, is knowledge that you can expect others to know or is widely accepted as fact.
Proper citation is important because citations allow your reader to see the research you’ve done and easily find it for themselves. In scientific articles, the National Institute of Health notes, it’s especially important for sources to be cited if experiments are going to be duplicated or expanded upon.
There are three main types of citation styles, according to the University of Pittsburgh:
- APA, which is used primarily by the sciences and many journalists;
- MLA, which is used by many branches of the humanities, including English;
- Chicago/Turabian, which is used by historians and the fine arts.
Using the correct style will help your readers find the information they need quickly and easily.
Citations can be tedious, but luckily there are several citation generators that can help. Citation Machine has options for almost all citation styles, while EasyBib will format your citations to both style and type such as footnote, in-text, endnote, or bibliography. These generators can take the title of a book and give you a full and generally accurate citation.
Plagiarism means stealing the work of someone else and passing it off as your own, robbing the original source’s creator of their agency. It is easy to prevent by properly citing and following your sources back to their origin. Plagiarism.org gives a comprehensive list of ways to avoid plagiarism, and Colorado State University notes that plagiarism is easily avoided and plagiarized work is not acceptable, especially in an academic setting.
Doing research online can be fun and helpful, but it also requires a level of caution and accountability. Asking the right questions, understanding how to search for what you need, and knowing how to give proper credit to your search results can make you a better researcher. Here are some additional resources for online research.
The American Association of University Professors discusses what is required in academic research standards: Academic research.
The University of California Santa Cruz also offers advice: Evaluate the quality and credibility of your sources.