How to do Research on the Internet
Posted Wednesday, Jul 8, 2009 by
The Internet is an essential tool for doing high school or college research. By skillfully using Internet search engines and subject directories, you can find valuable material on practically any subject within minutes—if not seconds. For students taking courses online, knowing how to effectively search for—and cite—reputable Web sites can be an essential part of their academic success.
Here are some tips to help make your online research more productive:
• Choose the Best Research Tools. There are essentially two types of “open” (free) research tools on the Internet. One is the “search engine,” which ranks Web pages that contain the words or phrases you input based on how relevant that engine thinks these pages are to what you’re looking for. Examples of popular search engines include Google, Yahoo! Search and Microsoft’s new Bing. The other type of research tool is the “subject directory,” which arranges Web pages logically by subject and sub-category, much as a library would. Popular subject directories include Google Directory, Yahoo!, About.com and Infomine. You should probably use a combination of search engines and subject directories to cover as many relevant sites as possible. Depending on where you are studying, you may also have access to “closed” online research tools such as those provided by college libraries. Don’t be afraid to use them.
• Know How to Phrase Your Question. The results you receive will only be as good as the question you ask. In the search field, be as specific as possible about the subject you want information about. For example, if you’re writing a paper about the health benefits of massage therapy, you’ll get better results from “massage therapy health benefits” than just “massage” or “health” alone. You can also use Boolean phrasing to widen or narrow your search. For example, you could enter “massage + benefits” to find only articles that contain both phrases. Or enter “massage + benefits not insurance” to eliminate articles that interpret “benefits” to mean “employment benefits” such as insurance, vacations, profit-sharing, etc. You should also try alternative words and phrases to see if you can get different and, perhaps, better results.
• Don’t Just View the Top 10 Results. Search engines such as Google rank results based on what its algorithms think you want to see, as well as overall popularity. But while very, very sophisticated, these engines are nowhere near perfect, and you may find a lot of useless information up front and some very, very valuable Web pages among pages 11-20 or even 40-50. Take the time to dig a little deeper and not just accept the first thing that’s put in front of your face.
• Evaluate Your Pages for Validity. There is a lot of information on the Internet, not all of it accurate, trustworthy or even serious. It is therefore always a good idea to be somewhat skeptical about the information your searches deliver. Ask yourself: Who/what published the Website in question—and why? Was the site produced by a government agency (.gov), a school (.edu), a non-profit organization (.org) or a for-profit commercial entity (.com)? Does the site’s purpose appear to provide objective information or to sell something? (If there are a lot of ads on the page, the site’s overall objectivity could be questionable.) Is it possible to identify the article’s author(s)? If so, are credentials provided? Is the site a primary source of information, such as a government agency, a medical journal or scientific publication, or a secondary or even tertiary source, such as a site that talks about other sites or articles? (Primary sources are always preferred.) What is the page’s date? In most cases, you want your information to be as current as possible.
• Properly Cite the Page. When citing a source in your paper, it’s important to include the entire Web address, not just the site’s Home Page. This is most easily done by copying the address in your browser’s address bar and then pasting it into your paper in the appropriate area, either as a footnote or in your bibliography.
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