With more than half a billion active websites in existence, how can you tell the good information from the bad? An Internet search engine, like Google, is a good place to start, but there’s much more you need to know about where to look, what is available, and how to filter what you need from what you don’t. Use this guide to walk through the process of conducting reliable academic research online as you work on your course assignments.
Before You Get Started
There are a few things you can do to prepare yourself for online research. Time spent getting ready will pay off in the long run in terms of both the overall effort required and the quality of your finished work.
Choose a research-friendly web browser.
Not all web browsers are created equal. Some of the most popular browsers include Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Internet Explorer, and while they all serve basically the same purpose – providing access to the Web – each has different features and capabilities. Here are a few questions to ask as you compare the options available and choose a browser for your course work and research:
- Can I open web pages in multiple tabs? It can be helpful to view more than one website at a time on-screen. Most browsers allow you to do this through an interface that features “tabbed browsing” that allows you to shift from one page to the next, and back, very quickly.
- How do I bookmark pages? Or mark them as favorites? You will encounter different terminology used with different browsers, but bookmarks and favorites allow you to save pages you want to refer to later on. This feature can also be helpful for quick access to sites you know you use often. All browsers offer this kind of functionality, but in different ways. Explore the different interfaces (e.g., toolbar menus, dropdown lists) and find one that makes sense to you and doesn’t take a long time to learn how to use.
- Is it easy to view my search history? We’ve all closed a page at some point only to find we still need the information, whether it’s a few minutes later or a week from now. If you forget to bookmark it, you can often still retrieve it in your browser’s “history.” Like bookmarking and favorites, most browsers track your viewing history, but not in the same ways. Experiment with several browsers to find out what settings are available and how you can access a history of sites you’ve visited in the past.
- Is it fast? A lot of the Internet speed you experience will depend on your connection (i.e., Cable, DSL, dial up), but browsers have an impact, too. Look for one with quick startup and navigation times. Chrome is often judged to be the fastest, but others come close to the same load times. How you use your browser can also impact its speed. Opening too many tabs, for example, can slow everything down.
Check with your school’s library for additional information on browsers, as well as recommendations based on the specific applications and databases available through the school’s portal. Chrome and Firefox are often recommended. Let’s take a look at some of the helpful features offered by each of these browsers:
- Synching: If you plan to use multiple computers and devices to access the Internet, Chrome allows you to set up an account (or use your existing Gmail login) to customize your tools and allow you to sign in from different locations and access your bookmarks, history, etc.
- Extensions: The Chrome Web Store offers additional applications that you can add to your browser to further refine your research and writing experience. Try the Citelighter toolbar extension to capture your notes as well as citations for the resources you visit online.
- Add-ons: Similar to Chrome’s extensions, there are thousands of add-ons available to customize your Firefox experience. Awesome Screenshot is one example, offering easy tools for capturing and annotating images from the Web.
- Mouse gestures: You may already be familiar with keyboard shortcuts, such as CRTL+C to copy text on screen. Firefox also makes mouse shortcuts available to use in your search.
Whichever browser you choose (and you may decide to use more than one), make sure you keep it up-to-date, upgrading to new versions when available. Browsers are continually being updated to improve speed and performance.
Set goals for your search.
You need to know what you are looking for before you start searching. Creating a short list of initial ideas helps you target your efforts, often saving time in the process. And while you are likely to discover some unexpected resources along the way, having a few goals in mind at the beginning will get you moving in the right direction. Use these tips to set your initial research goals:
- Organize your thoughts. Brainstorm keywords that may be related to your research topic. Study Guides and Strategies offers helpful worksheets for brainstorming and other “pre-writing” activities. There are other free tools available, such as The Outliner of Giants and MindMeister to help you map or outline your ideas.
- Write a thesis statement. What will your research cover? Be as specific as possible at this stage to further focus your work. Purdue Online Writing Lab presents examples and guidelines for analytical, expository, and argumentative approaches to writing. Use your draft thesis statement as a jumping off point for your online search.
- Consider different types of sources. For academic research and writing, you may want to first look for articles published in scholarly journals. Depending on your topics, you may also want to explore government documents, technical reports, historical archives, conference proceedings, dissertations, and books. These kinds of publications are usually indexed in the databases provided by your school’s library. If you aren’t sure if a source is appropriate for use in your course assignments, check with your reference librarians.
Search Engines 101
Chances are you have some basic experience conducting an Internet search, probably using the most popular search engine, Google. This section of the guide provides a basic introduction to how search engines like Google work. They can be powerful tools in your course work if you know how to use them.
Using search engines
The two most widely used search engines are Google and Bing, and each one offers a different way to find the information you need for your courses. Here are some of the tips and tricks for making the most of these tools:
- Start simply, with web friendly words. Google support recommends beginning with a basic search using “words that are most likely to appear on websites” (e.g., use “headache” instead of “my head hurts”). Based on the results you receive, add descriptive words and terms to fine-tune your search.
- Use search operators. There are several shortcuts you can use to conduct a more precise search. For example if you want to search for a term within a specific website add “site:” to your search words (e.g., accreditation site:ed.gov). The advanced search page can help you add this and other operators to your search.
- Filter by content type. In addition to text-based resources, you may want to find images, maps, videos, or other kinds of media. Tools and filters in the Google search toolbar help you target the items you need.
- Connect with Windows accounts. Just as Google search is integrated with Gmail, Bing has features that work specifically with Microsoft accounts. You can also choose to sign in with Facebook for a more personalized search.
- Use advanced search keywords: Bing Help provides guidance on using search techniques similar to Google’s search operators to refine the results.
- Compare interfaces: Try the Bing vs. Google tool to compare results for the same keywords using both search engines simultaneously. The Bing results page layout tends to be more focused on visual elements, such as images.
Understanding search results
Google, Bing, and other search engines use unique algorithms to produce the results you see when you search for any keywords or terms. These often-complex mathematical techniques are designed to help you find the most relevant information related to your topic. But there are other factors that may affect your search results.
- Paid vs. Organic Search Results: The algorithms described above are continuously modified to improve the results you receive from your search. These “organic” results appear in order of relevance, based on the terms you used. Many search engines also include ads on their results pages, either at the top of the results list or adjacent to the list. These ads usually include links to relevant materials, but appear as “paid” results to your search.
- Filter Bubbles: A term used by Internet activist Eli Praser, filter bubbles can occur when a search engine anticipates what you are looking for based on information in addition to your keywords. Your results list, for example, may be shaped in part by your location, the history of searches stored in your browser, and tracking of things you “like.” There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach; your search results are more personalized, but may not include ideas relevant to your search that present views different from yours. Compare your search for specific terms using your favorite search engine with those from an anonymous search option, like DuckDuckGo, to see the differences.
Finding Academic Search Options
Go beyond Google and Bing to explore other searchable academic resources. These online tools focus on research in general, as well as specific areas of study. The items listed below are just a start.
- iSeek Education: Use the iSeek Authoritative feature to view results that “are subjected to review by educators across disciplines.”
- WolframAlpha: A “computational knowledge engine,” WolframAlpha uses algorithms and human experts to generate search results.
- Internet Public Library: Search for “information you can trust” from collection of resources hosted by a consortium of colleges and universities.
- JURN: A “curated academic search engine” that includes more than 4,500 free online journals.
- Google Scholar: Search for scholarly literature across disciplines with results that include citations and links to related articles for each item.
Databases and Archives
- Library of Congress: Access digital collections and catalogs that include print, image, and multimedia materials.
- The World Factbook: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html Provided by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, this online publication allows you to search for details about the history, people, and cultures of more than 260 parts of the world.
- Government Publications: A searchable catalog of federal publications.
- State Legislative Websites Directory: Search by state and type of content (e.g., Bills, Issue Reports, Program Evaluations).
- The National Archives: This database includes genealogical, military, political, and economic records.
Books and Journals
- Directory of Open Access Journals: Search this collection of more than one million articles, all openly available without subscription fees.
- Project Gutenberg: A catalog of free eBooks that you can search in multiple ways including by title, author, popularity, and latest additions.
- Google Books: Search Google’s collection of books by keyword to find related entries, some with previews and full-text.
- JSTOR: This shared digital library offers some journal articles free online, while others may be available through your school library’s subscription.
- Genamics JournalSeek: Expand your search for relevant journal titles with this categorized database.
- Vadlo: This life sciences search engine provides results in four categories: Protocols, Products, PowerPoint Presentations, and Bioinformatics.
- PubMed Central: Provided by the U. S. National Library of Medicine, this collection includes free, full-text articles from biomedical and life science journals.
- Astrophysics Data System: “A digital library portal for researchers in astronomy and physics” maintained by a partnership that includes The Smithsonian Institution and NASA.
- Science.gov: Use this search engine to fins research materials provided by 15 federal agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
- WorldScience.org: This “global science gateway” allows you to search multiple scientific databases for papers, multimedia, and other text-based reports.
Math & Technology
- Computer Science Bibliographies: Find references to “journal articles, conference papers, and technical reports” from a collection of more than 3 million items.
- MathGuide: Use this tool to search for math related materials by subject, source type, or keyword.
- zbMATH: Search for pure and applied mathematics research and materials gathered in this expert reviewed database.
- Current Index to Statistics: “A bibliographic index to publications in statistics, probability, and related fields.”
- CiteSeerX: Search for scholarly literature focused on the fields of computer and information science.
- Anthropology Review Database: Search for print and multimedia resources using this database hosted by the University of Buffalo.
- Ethnologue: Browse information related to more than 7,000 world languages in this web-based catalog.
- Social Science Research Network: This eLibrary includes papers and journal articles in a wide range of social disciplines.
- ERIC: Sponsored by the U. S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, this collection includes a variety of education resources.
- Political Information: “A search engine for politics, policy, and political news.”
- History Engine: Hosted by the University of Richmond, this site offers access to an online database of historical articles and “episodes.”
- fold3: ‘The web’s premier collection of original military records.”
- In the First Person: A database of personal letters, diaries, and other artifacts including audio and video files.
- Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: This project from Fordham University included a searchable index of digital materials and web sites.
- American National Biography Online: Check with your school and local libraries for access to this subscription-based collection of biographies and learning materials.
Business & Economics
- IDEAS: A free database focusing on economics with holdings that include research papers, books, and software code.
- Economics Search Engine: Enter your keywords to search for materials posted on more than 20,000 economics websites.
- IFACnet: A search tool for information related to accounting practice and research provided by the International Federation of Accountants.
- Small Business Administration Search Engine: Find federal, state, and local government resources related to managing a small business.
Other Niche Topics
- FindLaw: A database of materials related to legal research, jurisdiction, and practice.
- LexisWeb: Search for legal content using this engine that includes access to news, publications, government resources, and more.
- PQDT Open: Find full-text, open access, dissertations and theses.
- Artcyclopedia: An online collection of resources that includes museums, image archives, articles, books, and more.
- The Women’s Library at LSE: Search this digital collection and interactive timeline for information related to women’s history and rights.
- MetaLib: Another helpful way to search for federal government resources such as technical reports, research articles, and citations.
- References: “The largest human-edited references resource collection on the Web.”
- Quotes: Search for famous quotes and sayings.
- The Literary Encyclopedia: This site includes searchable listings in three main categories: people, works, and topics and events. Check with your school to see if a full subscription is available.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus: This site provides free online access to these popular resources.
Evaluate Your Sources
Now that you know where to find relevant materials online, you also need to evaluate what you find to make sure the items you use in your course assignments are reliable.
Importance of Reliable Sources
While some websites and search engines provide easy-to-find information about who sponsors the information and how it is maintained, not all pages are easy to verify. The sources you use to develop your course papers and projects should be accurate in the information they provide and be produced by a reputable source.
How to Determine if a Source is Reliable
This takes some practice, but there are effective techniques available to help you decide whether or not a resource you’ve found online should be included in your work. You may want to first find education and government sponsored sites, then expand your search to other resources.
VirtualSalt.com provides helpful tips for evaluating Internet research sources using the “CARS Checklist“. Use these questions to screen each resource before you decide if it is “likely to be fair, objective, lacking hidden motives, [and] showing quality control:”
- C: Is the resource credible? Look for evidence of the author or organization’s experience and credentials in the field. Are they well respected? Can you trust them?
- A: Is the information accurate? How recently was the resource posted or updated? Check for details about the age of the material, as well as the intended audience. A site designed to sell a product or service may take a different, less relevant approach, than one designed to inform students and researchers, for example.
- R: Is the work reasonable? This question “involves examining the information for fairness, objectivity, moderateness, and consistency.” What tone does the author take? Can you identify any conflict of interest?
- S: What is the support for the information? Take time to find out more about the sources the author used to create his or her resource, as well as whether or not other resources “corroborate or confirm” the information being presented.
Organizing Your Research
By now you probably realize that you could find yourself managing a great deal of information for any one paper or project. Staying organized will be critical to meeting deadlines, reducing stress, and maintaining the quality of your work. Get organized from the very beginning of each project and save time spent trying to relocate helpful articles and web pages, or re-create ideas.
Maintain a Working Reference List
As you locate resources and evaluate them for reliability, you need to keep track of the ones you may use in your assignments. Find a method that is easy for you to use, so you are more likely to return to it often.
- Online Tools: Zotero and Evernote are just two of the resources available that allow you to create an account to save citation information, links, and notes about your references.
- Tracking Log: Create your own document or spreadsheet. Capella University provides an example of a Word document and table that includes details such as author, publication, and database, for each reference you find.
- Reference Managers: EndNote and RefWorks are two software applications that help you keep your citations organized. Your school may provide access to these and other tools that work with library databases to capture reference information.
Strategies for Taking Notes
While some of the items listed above also provide note-taking options, you will likely want to capture ideas in your course lectures, workshops, and other settings, as well as from your reading. The Cornell Note-taking System, outlined below, is one strategy available to help you stay organized.
Start by dividing a page of a paper or document file into three sections.
- One large column on the right side for your primary notes during a lecture or while reading.
- A “cues column” on the left side of the page for questions and reminders you can use to review materials after class.
- A small area at the bottom of the page for your summary of the lecture or reading.
Create your own template or use one of these tools to generate Cornell-style note taking pages for your classes:
- Cornell-Notes.com PDF Generator
- Microsoft Office template for OneNote
- Google Drive Cornell Notes Template
Citing Your Research
Why are taking notes and tracking your references so important? Your responsibility as a student includes giving credit where credit is due – providing attribution to the sources you used to develop your ideas and conduct your online research. By citing your references you are not only acknowledging the sources, but also providing a way for others to find and use the resources you found to be helpful.
One of the main goals of citing sources is to prevent plagiarism, which occurs when someone else’s words, ideas, or works are copied and used without letting the reader know that they aren’t your original materials. This can happen on purpose or inadvertently, but in both cases is regarded by colleges and universities as a serious problem that may result in penalties, such as having to resubmit an assignment or receiving a failing grade.
Citations are also required when you reword or otherwise provide a summary of someone else’s ideas or work. Find out what writing style guide (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago) is used in your academic program and consult the manual for guidelines on citing paraphrased works in your assignments, both within your papers and as part of reference lists or bibliographies.
Proper citation helps to prevent plagiarism and paraphrasing errors. Review this site’s Writing Center for a more complete citation guide, and consult your school’s policies related to academic honesty for information about what is expected from you.
The following sites provide additional information about conducting online research:
- Web Browser Reviews from PCmag.com
- How Search Engines Work from LearntheNet.com
- Research: Where do I begin? from Purdue Online Writing Lab
- YoMeta – Visual search engine
- More search engines from The Ohio State University
- Invisible or Deep Web: What it is, how to find it, and its inherent ambiguity from University of California Berkeley
- Note-Taking and Study Skills
- Plagiarism Game from Lycoming College
- Effective Paraphrasing from Walden University’s Online Writing Center