There’s a great State Farm commercial in regular rotation on TV these days: a young woman explains to someone that “they can’t put anything on the Internet that isn’t true.” Her friend asks where she heard that; they both respond “the Internet.” Just then, the woman’s date shows up, a man she met on the Internet who claims to be a French model-but clearly isn’t.
That commercial underscores an ironic truth about the Internet: If you search for tips on how to conduct proper academic research using the Internet, how do you know that the tips you find are legitimate and useful? Too often, what masquerades as useful is not up-to-date, is written by a novice, or is not thorough. Fear not! Below, I provide the definitive guide to conducting Internet research.
Well, maybe not definitive–it’s a big subject, after all. But as a professor who has guided hundreds of student research projects (in addition to conducting my own research at archives across the country and online), I can assure you that the following 10 tips are so important, so central to the successful completion of academic research, that you should bookmark this page and re-read until you can recite it in your sleep.
- List relevant search terms. While you look at your assignment, or think about your research topic, the first thing you should do is generate a list of search terms. Think creatively. For example, if you have to write a paper on gun control, don’t simply research “gun control.” Include terms such as: weaponry; gun laws; self-defense laws; firearm regulations; handguns; Brady law; background checks; gun legislation. These terms will probably bring up others that you can incorporate into your list.
- Narrow your list of terms by using the tools offered on your search sites, such as advanced search features. Now that you’ve got your list, it’s time to narrow your search to the most useful avenues. If you use Google to search for resources, this helpful video on YouTube walks you through the process of narrowing your search. There are also specific search engines that you might find helpful, such as Seeks for Open Source material. To maximize your results, you can use a metasearch engine that sends requests for information to a list of other search sites and the compiles everything. Dogpile is an example of these sites. Each of these offers way to make your search terms more specific so that you can get the most accurate information.
- Decipher the ranking of the site you find via Google. For example, a high-ranking site on Google does not mean it’s the best site for your needs. The analytics behind Google rankings are complex and do not necessarily reflect the accuracy or value of the sites. You will have to read through the Google pages to get a full picture of the range of resources available to you. For example, if we continue our gun control research here, we will probably find that there are a lot of sites written by lobby groups. These may not be the best sites for objective information, but they may have high rankings. Consider this question on all the search engine results you find.
- Evaluate sites for legitimacy. All sites are not created equal. Some sites are more reliable than others, and sometimes you can tell by the URL (the Internet address of the site) if it can be considered a trustworthy resource. For example, any site that ends in “.edu” is sponsored by a school and generally concludes information generated by faculty, the library or archive, or different university departments. The credibility of a university depends upon its reputation, so these sites are generally very trustworthy resources. However, “.com” sites contain a wide range of authors, from businesses to self-proclaimed expert without credentials. Sites like Internet Detective can help you determine the validity of other web pages.
- Use Wikipedia with caution. Understanding the use of Wikipedia is part of evaluating your site. Because its content is user generated, it can vary in quality. Use it as a starting point to generate ideas and search terms, but not as a definitive resource.
- Verify the information you find. This is another way to discover the validity of your source. If you can find one or more other reliable sites that contain the same data, you know that this information is worth pursuing.
- Pay attention to dates. In your search results, the links are usually accompanied by the date of publication. Choose those sites that are more recent to make sure your information is up-to-date. For example, to continue our gun control research example, if you want to know the most current laws, a site that is three years old won’t help you.
- Evaluate content amount and scope. Does the page seem complete? Could it be an excerpt? This is important if you are reading a site that contains both primary and secondary sources. For example, if you find a site on the latest gun control laws, is the text of the law present on the site, or only quoted in part? This can affect the content because it may be a commentary, which is not objective and may not be reliable. The same goes for evaluating the tone of the site. Could it be a parody or satire? If so, it may not be a good resource.
- Use your librarians and university resources. Research can be complicated, and no one knows as much about how to do it right than a librarian, who has special training and knows techniques and sources, such as subject-specific search engines, that you may not be aware of.
- Catalog all the resources you use for citation purposes. Many a student has been accused of plagiarism simply because they fail to cite their sources. In addition, the fast pace of Internet research, where a new source is just a click away, means that it is easy to forget all of the pages, articles, and websites you use. Keep track of these sources so that you can be as thorough and professional in the presentation of your research. Questia is not only a great Internet research tool and online library, it also contains excellent online citation tools to help you manage your growing bibliography.
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