10 Tips to Improve Your Online Research

Research can be tough. We’ve got tips to help.

The Internet is pretty amazing. It brings virtually all the available information in the world right to you in a matter of clicks. However, it’s also kind of a mess. While it might be easy to casually Google the best way to deep-fry a turkey or disable a car alarm, performing high quality, reliable research online is a little more complex. Fortunately, if you keep these 10 tips in mind as you do your research, you should be able to find everything you’re looking for. After all, it’s a big Web out there!

1. Be skeptical and demand verification

In his story “The Library of Babel” Jorge Luis Borges describes an impossible library that makes up its own private universe, containing a population of fervent librarians, and (supposedly) every book that could ever possibly exist. Most of those books, however, are total nonsense, consisting of random combinations of letters and symbols. The Internet is not too far off from this infinite library. It’s full of “information,” but lots of that information is gibberish. Many of the Internet’s “authors” are hardly qualified to write and publish on much of anything; some of them even try and mislead you on purpose, usually for the sake of making money, but sometimes just for fun.

This means that when it comes to online research on the World Wide Web, you need to be skeptical of what you are finding, where you are finding it, and who it is coming from. Reputable websites will clearly state whether or not the content is sponsored, and if so, by whom. This is helpful but you can’t expect every website to be so honest. Try to stick to sources with reputations for quality, and remember that if something seems fishy, it probably is. Research the author, if possible. If you can’t verify the truth of something to your satisfaction, throw the source out. Above all else, remember: social media is a hive for misinformation and should be approached with caution.

Bonus tip: If you want to read "The Library of Babel", or anything else by Borges, start here.

2. Use academic databases

In contrast to tip #1, there are plenty of options for controlling your online research experience and making sure you are getting good, useful information. Don’t spend all of your time on the World Wide Web. Instead, use something you are already paying for through your cost of tuition: online academic databases. Your school’s library offers lots of helpful services and tools, and one of them is a plethora of subscriptions to top-notch academic databases, such as EBSCO and JSTOR. Some of these are general databases and others are field-specific. All of them are fine-tuned to help you access sources such as peer-reviewed articles in academic journals, published study results, transcripts from academic conferences, and primary sources from archives. If you want to engage in quality research, the bulk of your time should be spent here.

3. Consult bibliographies for leads

Even with all of the great databases and research tools available today, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or stuck. It helps to go in with a sense of direction. If you have a couple of sources on hand, but aren’t sure where to go next, look at their bibliographies. Let your sources guide your research and use the bibliographies to see what research these sources used to support their findings. Your research should reveal a few key names and sources. Use your online resources to find these primary texts so you can see the original findings and research with your own eyes.

4. Learn to use WorldCat

Jumping off of tip #3, one super useful resource for online research is WorldCat. The “world catalog” can, at its most basic functionality, give you bibliographical information for over two billion items. This makes it much easier to complete those pesky citations. Moreover, because WorldCat is connected to library catalogs all over the world, it can tell you where a specific item (such as a book, journal, article, video, or audio recording) is held. If your school’s library participates in interlibrary loan, it can help you get the source delivered to your library and in your hands, or scanned and delivered as a PDF. Anytime you’re doing research, WorldCat is your friend.

5. Learn to use Wikipedia correctly

Disclaimer: we are not saying you should consider Wikipedia to be a reputable source. It is much maligned by schools and professors, and should not be cited in itself as an authority on anything that you are writing about. Wikipedia is free, open, and can be edited by anybody, which is cool, but also makes it susceptible to foul play and misinformation. However, it can be useful for research. Refer back to tip #3 here. Wikipedia has standards, and strongly suggests that pages use consistent and accurate citation for any claims being made (and it flags pages that fail to do this). The sources for any page are listed in the bibliography at the bottom of it. If you are trying to get your footing in a subject, you can use Wikipedia as a jumping off point by consulting the bibliography for a page, mining it for potentially useful (and verifiable) sources. Just remember, cite the sources you find from the bibliography, not the Wikipedia page itself.

6. Blend primary and secondary sources

When it comes to research, there are two types of sources: primary and secondary. Primary sources are “the thing itself” (books, movies, historical documents, whatever you are primarily focused on), while secondary sources are about the thing (such as articles by academics about said movies, books, or historical documents). You need some of both. This is especially important to note when using online academic databases, which may give you loads of useful secondary sources, but may have few primary sources. Think of it in terms of cooking. Primary sources are the meat (or tofu, if you prefer) and secondary sources are spices; in either case, one without the other does not make for an appetizing meal.

Social media can actually be useful here, but as a primary source, rather than an authoritative secondary source. For example, let’s say you are writing about the role of social media in the 2016 American presidential election. You can find things like tweets, shared posts, and archived screenshots from fraudulent Russian Facebook pages. These may not be useful for giving you facts about the election cycle, but they can be very useful for giving you evidence and examples from the election cycle: what happened, how it happened, where it was happening, and how people were reacting to it. This in turn, when combined with reputable and critical secondary sources, can help you build a thoroughly researched and supported argument.

7. Be open to unexpected results and interdisciplinary research

What if you really hit a wall, and find that there just isn’t much of anything pertaining to your research question? Or what if you do find relevant information, but it contradicts what you expect? When performing research, you need to be open to encountering the unexpected. Remember, you’re not going into this with research answers. You’re going in with a research question. You might have some suspicions, but you don’t know what is going to come of it. That’s the exciting part! Embrace the uncertainty. Your job as a researcher is to gather information from a range of sources, which sometimes may conflict or come from vastly different disciplines. Some sources may not (at first glance) have anything to do with one another. Part of the research process though is to analyze these sources, draw connections between them, and bring new ideas on your subject matter to the surface.

8. Experiment with keywords and filters

Whether you are using academic databases or common search engines, online research is not as straightforward as just typing a phrase and hitting “search.” You need to refine the search, and part of this comes from experimenting with keywords and filters. By refining the keywords you use, and employing filters to limit your results in interesting ways, you can really dig into a subject and find specific, useful sources that pertain to or inform your research question.

9. Organize your findings

The initial stages of research should be like trawling for fish; cast a huge net, gather anything that looks like it might be useful to you, then sort it out later. The last step can be intimidating, however. The key to not getting overwhelmed is to be organized. Create your own bibliography; organize it by topic, type of source, usefulness, or any other criteria that may help you. Creating complete citations for every source up front will also save you leg work at the end of the paper-writing process. Better yet, create an annotated bibliography, which briefly describes the source, key aspects of the source, and how it can be of use to your project. Doing so will give you a much greater sense of which sources should be relied on the most, and which can be cut from the list early on. For more info on how to construct an annotated bibliography, consult the Purdue OWL.

10. Consult a research librarian

Don’t go into this thinking, “When all else fails, ask for help.” It’s fine to ask for help early; we’re even going to encourage it. Part of succeeding in any endeavor is knowing your limits, and respecting that others can have a mastery of a subject far beyond your level of skill. In the realm of research, those masters are called research librarians. Many students don’t know about research librarians, but these people can be a guiding light in your perilous quest for knowledge. Employed by your school library, research librarians meet with students and act sort of like tutors for the research process. They know all the ins and outs of the library system and can help you find what you need, even if you have no idea what that is. In the spirit of online research, research librarians can perform all of these services virtually, through email, chat, or video calls. This means you can get personalized research help in the comfort of your own home. Don’t go it alone.

While these tips are not exhaustive, they should help you get your footing in the research process.

Of course, there’s more to writing your essay than just conducting research. For more tips, tricks and links, visit The Writing Lab or ask for pointers right here in the comments section below!