With the information age has come the attitude of “if you can think of it, you can find it on the Internet.” It's difficult to argue the sentiment when you can find out interesting facts such as who has the longest hair in the world, how fast the Earth rotates around its axis, or how much India's population grew in 2012.
Is It Online?
Though it may be the easiest place to begin researching, there are times when the Internet doesn't hold the answer. If you need complete details of the history of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the country of Georgia, you may have to visit a major library. If you need to know how people in your community have been affected by a new city ordinance, very little information may exist at all on the Internet or in print. You may be forced to conduct your own primary research.
Do you often research questions for friends and loved ones? Next time, help them learn how to help themselves.
So when is the Internet useful for conducting research? It depends on what kind of information you're looking for and how much information you need. If you're studying ancient Greek texts, you will probably have to arrange to view the documents at a university or academic center. (Some forward-thinking universities like Duke have created an Internet archive of its ancient texts for casual reference.) But if you need weather statistics or encyclopedic knowledge, a growing number of primary sources exist online.
Now you may be wondering what a primary source is. Material from a primary source is material that is closely related to the topic being studied. It's typically a document, person, or artifact that acts as the origin of information and discussion. Primary sources are extremely important to research, though secondary sources also have their uses. Errors in primary source material can be corrected by a secondary source through the process of peer review.
Many tools exist on the Internet to help you discover primary and secondary sources of information. The first thing to ask is “what kind of information do I need?” This will help narrow down where you should look. If you're looking for up-to-date research in the fields of industry and academia, consider looking for online academic and trade journals. If you need census data, government websites may be your best bet.
If scientific and scholarly journals are needed, you have several options. The most accessible option is the open access journal. You can find over 10,000 of them through the Directory of Open Access Journals. At a time when finding scholarly information on the Internet is difficult, the site strongly promotes increased adoption and visibility of these types of journals.
JSTOR is another option for academic and scholarly journals. However, the service is limited to those fortunate enough to have access to a library, school, or university that subscribes to the service. While searches using Google Scholar do reveal many JSTOR articles, those articles are essentially useless without direct access.
Another useful tool is the Web directory. A Web directory differs from a search engine in that it acts solely as an index or catalogue of sites sorted by theme. One of the more well-known Web directories is the Open Directory Project. Loosely affiliated with the Mozilla project, the directory is edited by a volunteer community dedicated to keeping it as current as possible. The directory has a wide variety of subjects to browse through. For example, if you're looking for information about diseases that affect trees, you can browse through the categories of “Science”, then “Agriculture”, then “Soils”, then “Soil Fertility and Fertilizers” to discover Colorado State University's information about iron chlorosis in plants.
Search engines also play an important role in any hunt for information. Often the source of a particular piece of information isn't obvious, requiring a search of the Internet. Sites like Google and Bing provide tools that allow you to fine tune your searches, narrowing down your results by file type, language, date, location, and more. Of course, getting the best results from a search engine requires advanced search techniques.
Google dominates the search engine market with more than 60% of global market share.
The process of researching online is in many ways the same as the offline realm. There are a few extra considerations to be made, however, when dealing with the vast expanses of the Internet.
- Determine what kind of information you want to find and where you're most likely to find it. If you don't know where to find it, you can always fall back on other search tools.
- Identify three or more important keywords relevant to your search beforehand. These keywords should guide your research from start to finish.
- Maintain a log of sites you visited for anything but the shortest research excursion. It's easy to lose track of what sites you have and haven't been to. Logging the URL and a brief description of the information is additionally handy for documentation of sourcing. It's also extremely handy when you find intriguing information that isn't directly related to your research. The easiest way to keep a log is to create a Word document or spreadsheet and save information to it as you progress.
- Verify if the source of a piece of information is primary. The mention of a statistic in a news article is usually secondary, requiring a search for the primary source.
- Consider reviewing more traditional print sources, especially when dealing with local or obscure subjects.
Citing your sources is critically important. With the easy availability of free plagiarism checkers online, fail to cite your sources, and you're likely to get caught.
When dealing with purely academic research though, the Net is still a supplementary tool. To many teachers, professors, and professionals, Internet sources don't have equal value to books, reports, and other offline material. But responsible Internet research based on primary sources is seeing broader adoption. Knowing the tools and techniques makes the process easier and more reputable.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I know if something is a reliable source?
It is important to understand that ANYONE can post on the Internet, and much of what you find in search results may not be accurate. But there are a few things you can do to make sure the information you find is reliable. First, when doing general research, stick to trusted sites that are maintained by knowledgeable experts. If you want medical information, a site like Mayoclinic.org is going to be more reliable than About.com. If you are trying to solve a computer problem, technical forums are often a good place to look, because they are visited by both tech enthusiast and industry professionals. For scientific or scholarly research, you should seek out peer-reviewed journals, many of which can be found using the Directory of Open Access Journals.
Is there a best search engine for research?
That will depend on the type of research you’re doing. For general searches, it doesn’t matter which of the major search engines you use, so long as you feel comfortable. Some people prefer the look and feel of Google. Others like the additional categories provided with Bing results. Still others are fond of the less add-filled results with a search engine like DuckDuckGo. Regardless of which search engine you choose, you will get very similar results.
Where the specific search engine becomes important is when you start looking for specialized material. For school-based research, you should use a service like Google Scholar or JSTOR. If you’re searching for specialized content that may not be searchable by conventional search engines, you may need to consider some of the database mining tools described in our look at the Deep Web.
Are there other places to find books online?
If you’re looking for the complete text of a book, Purdue’s Online Writing Lab is a great place to start. Other services, such as Google Books and ReadCentral, also include thousands of public domain titles that you can read online or download for free. More traditional eBook services, such as Kindle and Nook also offer many public domain books for free as well. For books that are not in the public domain, sites like Google Books and even Amazon.com include small samples from the books they sell, which is a great way to review the table of contents and even read a chapter or two. Another great options for free books is to visit your local library’s website. Many libraries now subscribe to eBook services, which allow library patrons to sign out books and download them to their computer or mobile device, just as you would a traditional library book.
How do I know where to look within an online directory?
Sorting through all the content within an online directory can be tricky, particularly if you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for or how it might be categorized. Fortunately, many online directories also include their own search engine. For instance, if you go to the Open Directory Project page and search for “iron chlorosis” you can find the same article mentioned above. The search function is particularly effective if you have some idea of what you are looking for, but aren’t quite sure where it might be located. Many of these search engines also allow you to narrow search results based on categories or type of content.
Is the Deep Web dangerous?
While it is true that a subset of the Deep Web, often referred to as the Dark Web, is frequently used for illegal and illicit activities, the Deep Web itself is not a dangerous place. The Deep Web simply refers to those places on the Internet that cannot be searched by traditional search tools, primarily because they exist inside databases or on sites that require logins to access. This includes perfectly safe information such as the contents of government databases, secure company websites or intranets, private forums, and online gaming communities. The Deep Web is also where you would look for scholarly articles, journals, and other types of research material that either sits in databases or you need permission to access. None of the tools provided above for searching the Deep Web will ever take you into the recesses of the Dark Web. To get there, you need to install special software on your computer and want to go there.