Most students start every research project the same way, with a Google search. As long as there’s a world of information at our fingertips, no one can blame students for relying on the convenience of Internet research. But there are right and wrong ways to do Internet research. For questions of basic, easy-to-access information, a Google search can serve you well. But for research papers and academic work, you will need a few more tools in your belt.
You probably already know how to do basic Internet searches. And you probably already know that you need to be skeptical and that you should fact-check things because you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet. But, when it comes to Internet research, there is a lot more that you can do to improve your game. Here are ten tips from a former grad student and educator. If you can internalize these online research tips, your next research paper should be a breeze (or at least, slightly less terrible than usual).
1. Use an academic search engine.
While most students use a simple Google search for information, or perhaps even a Bing or Yahoo! search, none of these are going to filter for academic articles, and reference works. That means the list you get is a thick wad of amateur writers, trash posts, and junk writing that isn’t reliable, authoritative, or helpful. You’d do better to use academic search engines like GoogleScholar, RefSeek, or BASE.
2. Don’t just cite the URL.
Citing sources in your research paper is like giving a street address. If you don’t give a complete address, your teacher can’t determine where you got your information. This is a sourcing error at best, and it can even lead to accusations of plagiarism. The teacher/grader needs to be able to determine exactly where you got your information or else you haven’t done your job as a researcher, and you can lose points. Unfortunately for you, Internet sources don’t always include page numbers. Likewise, sometimes sites squirrel away important source information in hard-to-find places. It’s your job to make sure the teacher doesn’t have to guess who wrote this article, who published it, when it was published, or where on the page/site your quote comes from. When you cite an Internet source, investigate that site if you have to, but just make sure that your teacher never has to guess where exactly you got your information from. Typical Internet citations should have the following information (though the format can change according to styling: MLA, APA, Chicago-Turabian, etc).
[Author], “[Title]”, at [Title of journal/magazine/book/website ], [City of publication]: [Publisher], [page number of if none, then paragraph number], Accessed: [date you accessed this source] at [URL]
3. If you have complete information for a book, cite that instead of the “online version.”
Sometimes, you won’t even need the URL if you’ve found a complete book or article that’s also available offline. Many teachers still frown on Internet sources. But you can turn that frown upside down by using the Internet to find old fashioned books and articles that have been digitized into online archives. That way, instead of citing a URL or referencing a website, you can leave out the “online” part entirely and still give them all the information they need to determine exactly where you got your quote/idea.
For example, instead of citing this:
Jack London, The Call of the Wild , Dover Thrift ed. (New York: Dover, 1990), pg. 2, accessed 17 July 2017 at: https://www.amazon.com/Call-Wild-Jack-London/dp/0486264726/ ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1500321371&sr=8-1&keywords=the+call+of+the+wild
Jack London, The Call of the Wild , Dover Thrift ed. (New York: Dover, 1990), pg. 2.
Your teacher doesn’t need to know that the quote you found can be seen on the “look inside” tab of the book page on Amazon.com. Your teacher can find your quote just fine, in the actual book, on page 2. You have done your research duty providing a “complete address.” You don’t need to tell how you got there (via Amazon.com, on the Internet) you only need to tell the teacher exactly where “there” is—page 2 of the book.
4. Use archived books, articles, and lectures from scholars.
Following closely on the last point, you would do well not to look at the Internet for online-only sources but instead look through the Internet to archived books, articles, and lectures from established scholars. This way, you can side-step a sea of “alternative facts” and pseudo-sources, and make a bee-line for online libraries. There are some excellent library-sized Internet archives of reference books, textbooks, and academic papers for example: Project Gutenberg, Google Books, or the Library of Congress.
5. Read Wikipedia, but never cite it.
Contrary to many academics, I’m a big advocate for Wikipedia. However, you have to know how to use it. In the early stage of your research, Wikipedia is a great place to start and get a survey level introduction to a topic. You cannot, however, cite Wikipedia because it’s not authoritative, and the authorship is anonymous.
6. Follow the trail to original sources.
Lots of articles, blogs, posts, and tweets are unusable to researchers. You can’t cite them. These sources may have great information, but you can’t use any of it because these Internet sources don’t have any scholarly merit. They look more like “ignorant opinions” than well-established facts. However, you can “follow the breadcrumbs,” from most any site, tracing links and references from one blog, to an article, to a book, to a study until you arrive at something that does have academic merit. This is an invaluable skill when it comes to sources like Wikipedia, for example. Instead of citing a Wikipedia article directly, follow the links on the page to the original sources, then go to the relevant page of the original source, read the facts there, and cite the original source instead of Wikipedia. Your teacher doesn’t have to know how you arrived at your sources so long as you did in fact arrive at some quality resources.
7. Distinguish authorities.
One of the biggest problem with the Internet is it doesn’t filter for expertise. Credentialed PhD scholars are listed right alongside amateurs who don’t have a clue what they are talking about. Researchers have to cut through a mountain of garbage to find scholarly opinions, evidence, and argument. That means you need to use some discernment in weighing the expertise of any given writer on a website or page. At some point, you are liable to find an Internet source which you want to include in your research paper. You may not, however, know whether that source is authoritative, scholarly, or academic.
Unfortunately, most high schoolers and many college students don’t know how to distinguish authoritative voices from the conspiracy theories and baseless opinions of amateur bloggers and hack journalists. So here are a few things to look for in weighing the authority of a given source:
- Does the author have a terminal degree in their field (PhD, JD, MBA, etc.)?
- Is the author speaking within his or her field of expertise?
- Does the author have professional expertise/practice in the subject?
- Is the author a college professor, or professional researcher in the field?
- Is the source published by an academic publisher or academic journal?
- Does the publisher peer-review their writings?
- Is the publisher a recognized authority in the field?
- Does this source or author have recognized acclaim/authority in the field?
- Do other sources cite this source or author?
- Do other recognized scholarly sources agree with the idea/claims of this source?
- Is the content of this source well-argued or otherwise impressive on its own merits?
8. Crowdsource tough questions.
The Internet isn’t very good at filtering for authorities, but it is very good at providing you a wide range of voices and opinions on any given topic. Sometimes your research takes you to a dead end, or brings you to a question you can’t answer. Either way, you aren’t sure where to go from there. When that happens, you can ask for help from the crowd through online searches, social media, dedicated crowd pages like Quora, or even through email. The idea is to get some “leads” from people who are familiar with the topic and who can help direct you into the next level of research.
9. Use reviews and abstracts to survey your topic.
Another strength of the Internet is that there is a ton of information available. That means you can survey a wide range of ideas and opinions if you know how to skim. Now, you don’t want all your research to be skimming. But it doesn’t hurt to combine depth and breadth. Read a few books and articles. And then familiarize yourself with several dozen more by reading book reviews, abstracts, and customer reviews online. This kind of “research” is somewhat shallow, and is only intended to give you a “feel” for the different ideas and opinions out there. Nevertheless, it’s important to have a perspective on the subject that is both deep and wide, digging into the heavy evidence and arguments while also appreciating the wide variety of views and opinions on the subject.
10. Use online book sellers to find bibliographical information.
While you are skimming book reviews and abstracts, make sure you record the bibliographical information that you’d need for the Works cited page. I cannot tell you how many times I've gone to Amazon or Bookfinder to find out the publication date, or publishing city for a book.
These tips are designed to help, but of course, there is no substitute for truly immersing yourself in a subject. The best advice we can give you is to try and find your passion for your research topic. Nothing makes the process more manageable than a genuine interest in the subject matter.