If you're in college or the later years of high school starting one of your first research papers or a project larger than what you're used to, then you should know that research is going to make or break your grade. Your own conclusions aren't enough: you must back up your opinions, find facts, and provide ample reason for your paper to stand out and impress your professors. Proper research skills can make any project a relative breeze.
Yet proper research skills aren't innate to anyone. Like any skill (and it's a different skill than just reading), it needs to be developed. And we're here to provide you with the skills you need, specifically regarding what's available for you online. While in previous decades transfers and scans were still going on and more physical books than online resources might have been required, now nearly all major journals and major texts are online in some capacity to be accessed and read nearly anywhere.
With what you're using to read this article you can access nearly everything you need. This can be a daunting proposition, so let's get started on showing you what you have at your disposal.
College and High School Resources
Colleges have been collecting research and information in part for people just like you for centuries, and providing ample access to it is one of their main duties and functions as an institution. Using your student ID, college-provided login information, or another similar setup, you almost certainly have access to your school or college's library system, which in turn is often connected to a much wider research database filled to the brim with papers, books, notes, and more.
If you're still confused by the system (and admittedly, some have not been updated in years, and can remain unintuitive at first), you will want to find help, and it should be available. Some introductory college courses include as part of their curriculum the use of the college library resources. At other times libraries or research centers will hold classes or seminars on best use practices, from which you can learn all of the basics. We highly recommend these despite the time cost, as you'll likely save much more time in the long run with what you learn.
Ultimately, take the time to explore and experiment with what you have available to you. We guarantee it will pay dividends.
Using Your Library
Whatever the reason for the research and wherever you are, you also likely have access to a local library, and that library likely has similar access to resources, journals, and papers you would otherwise need hundreds of dollars to read. Results may vary based on your location, as unfortunately, some libraries receive better funding than others. Furthermore, many libraries are linked to a larger interlibrary loan system (under that or a similar name), so even the most humble of libraries, through the use of the internet, can either get you access to treasure troves of information or order you physical books that might help you.
A simple login to your local system, even if you already live on campus with a college library right next door, might give your paper or project something unique to work with. It should be noted, though, that getting access to physical resources can take a little while, so thinking ahead is key here.
If your teachers and professors are shouting to the heavens to not use Wikipedia, they are right but only half right. In most cases, you shouldn't be using Wikipedia as a primary source for anything, given its nature as an often changing, crowdsourced resource. It can be useful, though, as an excellent aggregation of basic information and portal to more specific articles and papers.
The key to this is using citations, usually listed at the end of the Wikipedia page (and required by Wikipedia in many cases). Sometimes they lead to online articles (which you might need to investigate more thoroughly), and at other times they lead to more reputable resources or journals you absolutely can use in your paper or project, and Wikipedia led you to them rather quickly.
At other times, you can use Wikipedia to confirm general knowledge that doesn't require citation or consider another way of phrasing the information. While you should never plagiarize, you should always consider how you are going to present the information, and who the audience of your work is (even if it is just one professor).
What Do Your Primary Sources Cite?
Something more unique to the usefulness of using online databases and resources to help you perform your research is that often the sources of your sources are only a click away, and you can easily check out materials that might have been used in the creation of that book or paper. Those sources themselves are things you can use, and in fact might be more useful than your first find, able to better clarify concepts or provide more proof for your arguments.
Ideally, there will be a direct link, but if there isn't one, you still don't necessarily have to fret. You can either use a search to find the book or article if necessary or use the citation to your advantage and insert as many details as possible into the online system your school or library uses. If you are stuck behind a paywall or another barrier, we recommend consulting a reference specialist. They might not be able to help, but they'll certainly try and may have a different form of access.
We also don't necessarily recommend diving deep into every source cited. If it's incidental, unnecessarily complex, or only partially related to the subject at hand, what you were first looking at is quite possibly what you needed all along.
The Many Functions of Google Beyond a Simple Search
If you are using Google searches to help your research efforts, then you should know that they can do a lot more if you know what keywords and commands to use. You can use this page to get a complete list, but here are some of the more prominent ones:
- To exclude words from a search, enter your search term, then "-", then what you want to exclude [example: cats -kittens].
- To search for a word in the title of a page, use title:search [example: title:cat toys].
- Use "site:" followed by the website URL followed by the search query to search through pages on a specific site [example: site:cats.com "cat toys"].
- Use quotes to search for an exact match to a phrase [example: "cats playing with cat toys"]
- Put "OR" in between two potential queries to search for both at the same time [example: cat illnesses OR cat diseases]
Think about creative and contextual ways you can use the above commands to help you get the precise information you want, from the time period you want, and excluding what you don't want. It might take some practice, but this is a skill you can invest in and receive great returns for the rest of your academic career and beyond.
Using Keywords, Filters, and Other Tools
On top of using the tools Google (or other search engines, although outside of library resources and databases why would you) provides, you can also consider the other side of the question: what queries are you using and what keywords are you using? Ask yourself the following:
- Could the search engine be confused between two meanings for this query?
- Could there be a more common or a more scientific term that provides better search results?
- What are the things you don't want or need to know about the topic?
- Could searching for videos, images, infographics, or non-text media help you in any way?
While Google and other search engines are constantly getting smarter, they still aren't perfect, and they can't read your mind (yet). You may need to experiment with different options to get the sources you're looking for.
Past Instances of Pages
You can also use tools such as the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to help you access previous instances of sites. This can be helpful to not only create a backup copy of how a site was when you first reviewed it (especially if the site is wont to change, such as a news site), but show differences made if that's an important part of your research.
Excellent Sources of Statistics and Facts
There are a few general sites and sources of information you can use to help you find statistics and facts, especially if they would be well-known (yet important). You can use these sites to help you set up your argument, cross-reference with other sources of information, or give yourself a better general idea of the world.
Government websites often have statistics you can easily use and rely on. A few that might be helpful for many people are:
- The CIA World Factbook, if you're looking for demographic information or information on foreign governments (among other things).
- The website of the Library of Congress, if you're looking for historical information. They also have a massive catalog of free resources that can complement what you already have available.
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website for health statistics. It may be one of the best resources for health information.
- The National Archives, which will allow you to read through documents, photos, and more that they have available.
- Statista can be expensive to use, but just the brief abstracts they provide might be able to point you in the right direction.
- The Google Public Data Directory can provide you with a wide swath of easily available data on your topic of choice.
Best Research Practices
Some periods of research are more effective than others, and research is more than just copying what you read on a source and hoping it all makes sense at the end. Any proper guide to internet research should also address issues of best practices, and that's just what we intend to do here.
Create A Good Setup
Browsing on your phone isn't going to be the best
setup if you're hoping to do some serious and efficient research. Ultimately
what works best for you should be what you use, but you can consider the
following options and tips:
- If you can avoid the temptations and distractions it offers, a second monitor can work wonders for your research to allow for much easier notetaking and comparison of sources. A spreadsheet or notepad open on one monitor and your current reading material on another may also raise efficiency.
- Try to find a quiet space to do your research and avoid distractions as much as possible. We understand this can be a difficult thing online but staying on task can save you loads of time in the long run and create a better product by the end. Library stations are often built to help with focus.
- Give yourself plenty of time to do your work and research, and you'll find that the results are richer, the process more enjoyable, and you'll gain a greater appreciation for the material. Avoid procrastination to your benefit.
- Keep a notebook in front of you. While notetaking apps and documents can work well, sometimes you want to simply draw arrows, make scratch notes and look away from the screen for a short spell.
If you have a question that keeps coming up in your research, follow the thread of that question and don't let go. While you want to avoid useless rabbit holes, what separates the generic papers from the more interesting (and likely better-graded ones) is a dedication to answering questions that are brought up during the research process.
Avoid Confirmation Bias
As much as you might want to, you can't give in to using sources that merely provide confirmation bias for your current end goal. While any paper or end result of research for a student should be aiming towards some conclusion, ignoring what could otherwise be solid evidence towards the truth will hurt you in the long run, and any educated person in the field will be able to see through the deception.
Cite and Take Notes
If you're going to use a source, it is wise to at the very least provide yourself all the information you need as you find it. It's a quick and easy step that can save you hours if you suddenly realize you want to use your source later. You can even use a citation tool to make things easy for you, although we do recommend you double-check its work to make sure it is in the proper parameters for your field.
Much related to taking notes, you need to organize what you find. While you might be able to remember things immediately after you do your research, what if you plan to write your paper in a week or this is an extensive task you're working on?
You should organize things based on how you would be able to work through them, and only you will know what works best for you long-term. Just keep your notes easy to understand after a while and logical, and you should do great.
Additionally, if you're taking notes on your device, there are many apps and tools that you can help you with this:
- A spreadsheet (Excel or Google Sheets) can work just fine, as long as you make sure to keep the file updated and can access it easily.
- Evernote is a great note-taking app and is especially useful if you want to record voice or audio notes, take screenshots or photos for notes or have other needs.
- Microsoft OneNote was designed for notetaking, and if you have an office subscription at a discount because you're a student, then you might have easy access to it already.
Skim First, Read Later
You won't have enough time to read everything you come across, even if it might be helpful. And even if you did have the time to do so, that time would be better spent finding other sources or creating a superior paper or project. Look at tables of contents, and then skim the subtitles and first and last lines of paragraphs. You'll usually get the main point and you can easily determine if what you're looking at is worth more of your time.
It's OK to Ask for Help
If you have access to a research librarian through your college or library, work with them and ask them for help, or book an appointment if they require one. Their job is to help people just like you get to the bottom of what you're looking for and keep you on the right path (or the "wrong" path, if it'll help further your efforts or interests). They know the systems you'll be working with better than anyone and can give you a new perspective.
Don't Plagiarize (Intentionally or Unintentionally)
You've certainly heard all the warnings and threats about intentionally plagiarizing and passing off someone else's work as your own, and you won't find any arguments for it here. Don't do it, it can sabotage your entire academic career, and it won't make you any better at researching.
Yet you can also unintentionally plagiarize through poor citation and a few other methods. Simply avoid the following, and you shouldn't have to worry:
- If you are failing to cite a source that is not common knowledge after providing that information, then you could be unintentionally plagiarizing.
- If you aren't using quotes and using the exact words of your source when you do use quotes, you may be plagiarizing.
- If you are misusing a quote or are misconstruing the quote or ignoring its context, then you could be guilty of academic dishonesty.
- You should be using your own voice and words to convey information unless quoting an exact definition.
You can and should use quotes when it is appropriate, and you should never be afraid to do so. Just take the time to learn proper citation for your discipline, keep notes on everything, and use your sources honestly, and you shouldn't have any problems.
If you're particularly worried about unintentionally plagiarizing someone else's work, then you can use a service such as Grammarly, Copyscape, or one of a myriad of other options. Some will cost you pennies, and the peace of mind can be more than worth it.
Avoiding Bad Sources and Misinformation
The internet is an excellent resource to help you with your research and in modern times it's effectively your only resource, with many books and journals having become outdated. That being said, the internet's accessibility allows anyone to post information and call it the truth. It'll be your job to sort through this. While we're sure you're internet savvy in many regards already, here are a few more tips to help you avoid using false information:
- Be wary of anything you find on social media, unless you're studying social media habits themselves and performing your own research.
- If you're looking at a study or article online, see where its funding came from or where it is hosted. Skepticism is healthy, and not all "science" is equal. Would you trust a paper funded by the tobacco industry on how smoking affects cancer rates?
- Beware of sensationalism and clickbait titles. While you can probably determine what they are (consider Betteridge's Law of Headlines) and know that certain claims would make national news if true. If we found conclusive proof of alien life today, you'd know for sure by tomorrow, and not from a fourth-rate blog.
- While not malicious in nature, also consider the publishing date of sources and information you're working with. This is especially important in scientific fields, where new discoveries and refinements and updates to previous research occur often.
- Beware of things such as small sample sizes, limited geographical locations for certain types of surveys, and otherwise poor information collecting.
Comparing Sources and Using Your Reasoning Skills
Your sources, especially if they're on a contentious, controversial, or modern topic, might not all agree. In fact, they could very well outright contradict or argue with one another, leaving you with a problem. If you're stuck in such a situation, you might want to do the following:
- Is one source more recent than the other? Could the creation of one source have had an ulterior motive? Consider some of the warning signs listed above and double-check everything you can.
- Examine the reasoning used for each source and see which one has more information behind it and a more thorough methodology used to come to its conclusions. This isn't a perfect method, but more likely than not it will lead you on the right path.
- Consult your teacher, a professor, or an expert. They'll likely be surprised and pleased by your initiative and will probably be happy to help. Besides, if someone who gave you your assignment says a source is good, then you can likely use it without issue.
Chances are that you aren't going to use every last tool, resource, and strategy listed above. And that's OK, you were never meant to. We want this to remain a resource for you to return to when things get difficult in your research, or when you need a refresher. Be careful, remember that working smart is best and that while there is always more information, it's important to consider the scope of your project. We wish you the best of luck with your research and your academic career.