Research papers and composition essays are probably coming up here, so I thought I’d spend a little bit talking about doing research for assignments on the internet. This will also be my starting off point for getting some library tips out there, because research is one of the essential skills to learn in college. It’s like math in grade school, you might hate it or think it won’t matter down the line, but it becomes really important when you are trying to buy a house or when you are just looking for the right lawnmower.
You can find something on every topic around the internet, but the fact is that not everything people post to their websites is factual or trustworthy information. I, for instance, have no idea what I’m talking about (that’s a joke). Notice the contractions and lack of references in this post. Helpful as it may be, it’s not going to fly for your midterm.
My anthropology 101 professor gave us warnings and tips like choosing a .com over a .net, but that information seems a little dated and uninformed to me (he was very old). The address is, however, definitely the first place to check to see if you have a credible source on the internet.
Check the web address
Is it a free blog? Then you might want to find another site. While it could be a professor somewhere who wants to share peer reviewed findings cheaply, it is most likely a hobby website. Dot com, net, web, org, edu, gov: there are a lot of different domains to choose from. Generally speaking, .edu and .gov sites will offer primary sources with useful information.
Is it an actual trusted academic source
or is it Wikipedia? Domains aside, websites that are generally held as trusted may not have what your professors are requiring of you. Wiki, as helpful and amazing an open information source as it is, will not provide the kind of information or sources that your professors are looking for. Check the references at the end of an article you find and you will be on your way to something because we’re looking for primary, not secondary, sources. Dig deep.
If it is not an academic source
what kind is it? A cancer research group, while not necessarily academic, can still be trusted to be informative, giving useful details and resources, whereas a website that is trying to raise money for cancer research might give information weighted to get readers to support their cause.
When was the site last updated?
If you are looking at scientific information or statistics, information that changes or needs amended over time, you want to make sure that the website has been updated recently (or has been maintained). This is especially true in the sciences, while a literary review from 50 years ago might be good for a laugh, expired data is no laughing matter. What good are climate change statistics that end three years ago? Useful, but not exactly accurate, which is what we’re looking for in college. Up to date is right to take.
If it doesn’t look professionally done, then it’s probably better to move on to something else. Don’t be tricked by a simple layout, though! A “plain” look might mean the author has given more attention to the details than the image. A lot of .edu websites I’ve gone to are old school websites, we’re not talking WordPress blogs/websites, I mean old school. They did, however, have great information and references. Check for obvious mis-spellings, poor paragraph formatting, and the tone of the writer.
Are there references/works cited?
If the author is giving information without citing sources or referring to primary authors, then you might be reading someone who has thrown together a webpage without really doing the work. A primary source is almost always what you want to use. Sometimes a secondary source will benefit your work as supplementary commentary or to support your own claims, but generally speaking we want to use information that is coming directly from the person whose work it is. Again, Wikipedia is fine for light research and the references might lead you to some really useful information.
Copy and paste, click links, and explore a little. It can’t hurt.
The internet has never really been my main source of research. While I have tooled around with Google Scholar and other search engines, my University libraries have had direct access to the papers, articles, and books that the internet only gave samples of. There is a wealth of information on your campus, while the internet can be difficult to navigate sometimes. For me, it is more time consuming than it is fruitful.
My first Library Tip will be coming up soon and with it some advice about using your University’s library databases and stacks.
Using the internet as a preliminary search tool has worked best for me. I use it to figure out keywords that are associated with topics, to find out some related information to improve thesis statements, and to explore topics in a broad scope.
The internet is a fantastic place, just be careful about using information you find there. Professors will not accept Wikipedia or other questionable sites as a legitimate sources, and yes, they check. Stick to primary sources, use your library, and be conscious of who is giving the information.