Before the internet, students would trudge to libraries and archives to perform time-consuming searches for information, books and journals. The advent of the Internet has opened up many doors, revolutionising the way we study and research.
But can you trust everything you read on the web? How can you spot when something is not right? And how do you search for information on subjects that are sensitive or restricted without causing a problem for yourself? This guide will give you all the information that you need for effective online research.
- Use reputable sources
From newspapers and online magazines to well-authored sites to websites that are dominated by one subject, make sure you pick up information from reputable sites.
For authoritative news reporting, the BBC would be considered an authoritative site by those who verify sources of information. Chat or gossip news sites may not necessarily be so bothered about the facts behind the headlines.
Use websites with domain names that end in .edu or .gov for reputable scholarly articles.
- Subscribe to an RSS feed
Really Simple Syndication is a technology that allows subscribers to be notified when new information or articles are posted. RSS is great for news sites, especially if you want to stay updated on a certain topic.
- Join a forum or group (or create one!)
There are numerous websites that have associated forums and groups that share information with fellow students. They are a great way of finding new resources, as well as a good place to discuss the latest academic issues with fellow students.
- Advanced searches
Sometimes, the actual way that we search online is important for getting the right results. Boolean Logic uses the words ‘and’, ‘or’ and ‘not’ to create search term relationships and narrow down your search results.
- Think around the topic
How else can you rephrase or ask the same question? For example, if you are reaching why the dog drooled when Pavlov rang the bell, you could try searching for canine, puppies, drooling dogs, as well as psychology experiments with dogs and animals.
- Use different search engines
Not all search engines come up with results in the same way. For example, Google a is a ranking engine, whereas other search engines (such as Yahoo) rank via general content. In other words, despite using the same search terms, you will get different sets of results.
- Research browsers
For those students taking research courses, using a browser that is conducive to research is essential. This means that for sensitive subjects and those searches online that could be misconstrued, you will be accessing academic based information, articles and research, rather than uncensored information.
Take a look at the following sites:
Google Scholar http://scholar.google.com/
Resource Discovery Network http://www.rdn.ac.uk/
Or for books try a Google books search http://books.google.com/
- Bookmarks and notes
For anyone conducting research, keeping notes of where you came across your information is essential for citation purposes. Learn how to use the bookmark and folders functions on search engines. Some students keep a running log of which websites they accessed and when.
- Ask questions of the research
Why has this person written about this topic? Why have they chosen to publish material to the web? Is there anything for them to gain from doing so?
Just like a police officer or historian questions the evidence before them, when you research information online, you should constantly question the source. This is partly about looking for bias as much as it is about validating the information as genuine or useful.
- Customise your search
There are some lesser-known search terms that can be useful in reducing search results making them more useful;
- The plus operator (+): Stop words are typically ignored by the search engine but the plus operator tells the search engine to include those words in the result set e.g. salt +and pepper will return results that include the word ‘and’.
- Numeric ranges: You can refine searches that use numeric terms by using a specific range, but you must supply the unit of measurement (e.g. desktop £100 £300)
- Related sites: For example, ‘related:www.youtube.com’ can be used to find sites similar to YouTube.
- Forums-only search: Under the Google logo on the left side of the search result page, click ‘More | Discussions’ or go to ‘Google Groups’.
The web is a rich resource for researching anything to do with your course, but always check the source of the information.