The Student's Internet Research Guide - 2020 Edition

Posted under: Internet and Student

Although it's part of going to school, most students start to sweat when they hear they will have to do a research project. So many questions pop up - what am I researching? How long does it need to be? How many sources should I use?

All of these are valid questions, but you shouldn't freak out over a research project. They can seem intimidating at the beginning, but most students find them to be some of the more rewarding assignments they do. It's a chance to take a deep dive into a topic that interests them and to find out something new that they might not have had the chance to learn in school.

However, these projects still are a lot of work. So, we figured we'd save you some time and energy by putting this internet research guide together. The internet is a great research tool, and you'll likely rely heavily on it to do your project, but there are a lot of layers to internet research, and research in general, that you need to know.

Take a look below to answer all the questions you might be having about how to tackle your next research assignment.

What to Research?

The very first thing you need to do before you dive into any research is to figure out exactly what it is you're trying to figure out. The general topic may already be decided for you, or at the very least, it will be narrowed down by the course syllabus.  There are still a lot of decisions that you will need to make after that to determine the course of your research project.

What Is Good Research

Comparisons

Comparisons are an excellent way to complete a strong research project. Showing how one thing is similar, or at times different, from another can help extrapolate your research and make it more meaningful. For example, if you're doing a project on the French Revolution, it might be a good idea to look at how it compares to the American Revolution. What you find will help you identify some of the key trends going on in the Western world in the late 18th century. This will make for a much more impactful research project than if you just retold the events that took place in France.

Before you start researching, think about what comparisons you might be able to draw from your research. You will uncover some things along the way, but a lot of it you can probably figure out beforehand. This will help steer your research towards certain subjects, making your work more focused and your research more interesting.

Connections

Along similar lines, making connections between different things is a really good way to do research. For example, if you're doing research on a piece of literature, it's a good idea to make connections between the work and what was going on in the world at the time. This will help you better understand what it is you're reading and why it's significant, which will make it easier to narrow down your search for things that help illuminate these connections.

Sometimes, connections aren't all that obvious, so you may need to do some brainstorming. Write down a list of all the things you think are related, and then spend some time digging to see if these connections are actually there or just something you've made on your own. No matter what you find, this will get your research off and running, which will help make it easier to progress on the project and produce a quality end result.

Conclusions

All good research projects answer the following question: So what?

It seems simple enough, but looks can be deceiving. Essentially, answering this question helps demonstrate the relevance of your work.

To give you another example, let's pretend you're doing a project on the US' involvement in WWII. On your end, to come up with all the ways the US participated in WWII might take a lot of research. If your paper/project simply recounts what the US did, then you haven't answered the "so what?" question all that well. Instead, you've just told us what happened, something we could have figured out on our own.

This "so what" will likely be your thesis statement, which is the central argument you are trying to prove with your research, and it's essential to a good project. As a result, go into your research with an idea in mind of what you're trying to prove. Make a hypothesis and go out and test it. The information you find may shape the conclusion you end up making so that it's different from what you first thought, but that's totally okay and 100 percent part of doing research; if we already knew everything, what would even be the point?

By going into the research with an idea of the conclusion you want to make, your research will be that much more focused. It will be a lot easier for you to know where to start and which angles you should pursue throughout the life of the project.

Something New

Lastly, you want to make sure you're researching something different. Depending on where you are with your studies, this may be referring to the topic, but usually, you don't get into entirely original research until at least graduate school.

However, good research projects still find a way to present information in a new light, even if that information has been around for a while. To find out if what you're trying to say is new, you will need to get a good overview of what people are already saying, which is useful to your work anyway. Then, once you have a snapshot of the current debate, you can begin looking for unexplored angles and new approaches that will set your work apart and make your research all that much more meaningful. 

Doing Your Research: Choosing Sources

Now that you're clear on what it is you're going to research and what angle you're going to take to research it, the time has arrived to dig into the source material that's out there. However, before we discuss where to find these sources, we wanted to clarify the different types of sources you will find and remind you that some are much better than others.

Different Types of Sources

Primary

Primary sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic. If you're researching history, they would be sources that were created by those who played a part in or witnessed the event in question. Examples include diaries, letters, original texts/documents, speeches, photographs, databases, interviews, etc. In some cases, newspaper articles are considered primary sources, but only when they were written by a reporter who actually witnessed the event you are researching.

In general, primary sources are considered to be the best sources out there. They represent the rawest account of whatever it is you're researching, but this doesn't mean they are without their flaws. For example, nearly every president has published their letters/diaries, and these are wonderful primary sources. Remember though, just because they wrote it doesn't mean it's true. These individuals likely have a vested interest in how certain events are remembered, and of course, no one has a perfect memory.

As a result, it's important to take time to identify and understand any potential biases a source may have. In a best-case scenario, you will have multiple primary sources about the same topic, which will allow you to compare different accounts and distill something that more closely resembles the truth.

Secondary

Secondary sources are those created from primary sources. The most common secondary source is a book about a certain subject. It likely makes use of multiple primary sources (if it's any good), yet the person who wrote it didn't witness it or wasn't directly involved. Other examples include documentaries, analyses of data, and scholarly articles.

When taken from a reputable place, secondary sources are still a very strong tool for research. They often skip a lot of steps for you by synthesizing data or other documents into one place, but you must remember that these sources will inherently reflect the biases of the researcher. As a result, you should not take what you find as absolute truth but rather as an argument or conjecture. It's then your job to verify this before you include it in your individual research project.

Tertiary

Most people don't talk about tertiary sources because they generally speaking aren't used. They are sources that make use of secondary sources. Probably the best example is a book review, but blog posts or YouTube videos that explain or critique some other work are also examples.

They are useful in helping to determine the reliability of a secondary source but are not typically considered strong enough to cite directly in your work. When you come across something that helps your research but is completely based on something else, use it to help you understand the topic, but look for something stronger to reference in your final project.

Determining Source Reliability

Another thing you need to keep in mind when you are doing your research on the web is the validity of a source. The teacher assigning the project may specify what this means - for example, some teachers only want you to use books and scholarly articles, as these tend to be the most reliable.

However, many more teachers will want you to engage with the web and other sources, and you should. After all, the internet has made it possible to find so much more information, but because anyone can write about any topic, web research requires a bit more diligence.

The first thing you should do is identify who is writing what you're reading. If it's just some random person, what are their credentials? And how have they cited their work? If they have written something that is well-researched and is clearly valid, there's no issue citing them. However, if you see no references and they are making a claim that you can't find anywhere else, there's a chance that it's not all that reliable. You should avoid using it as a source, even if it supports your argument.

Ideally, the stuff you find online will be associated with a known entity, such as a news website, research institute, university, government institution, etc. Typically, although not always, information that comes from sites with either the ".gov" or ".edu" domain names is pretty trustworthy.

In the end, if you follow these guidelines, you'll find yourself only working with reputable sources. But it's also a judgment call. If a site looks shady and unprofessional, it's unlikely the people behind the content have done all the work necessary to verify the information.

If you find something that is tremendously useful, but you can't really identify its validity, perhaps reach out to the person who created it to find out their methods. If you don't get a response, this probably answers your question. If you do get a reply, evaluate it based on what we've already discussed. Who knows? Doing this may even send you down a new path that leads to some really exciting research.

Where to Do Your Research?

With all of this in mind, it's time to dig into the actual research. In so many ways, doing a research project these days is much easier than it used to be, thanks in large part to the internet. You have access to so much that before was simply out of reach. Of course, the other side of this is that it can be quite overwhelming to know where to start.

Where To Find Sources

Google

This one probably doesn't need much introduction, but the best place to start is a simple Google search about the topic at hand. This will direct you to the most prominent research about a topic and some of the mainstream ideas related to it. For example, the first hit is usually a Wikipedia source. Wikipedia can be a great place to get started as it will give you an overview of what you need to know, making it easier for you to figure out how to dive deeper.

There are reasons why this is all you should use Wikipedia for and not more, which we will discuss shortly. But using Wikipedia and other top search results as a jumping-off point for your research can be very useful.

However, there's a lot more to Google that you may not have known about, which can make the tool that much better.

Special Features of Google

Some of the special features of Google include:

·        Choose your date range - Do this on the homepage by clicking the "tools" button right below the search bar. This will allow you to choose the date of the results, as well as which types of results come up.

·        Advanced search - This allows you to search for multiple phrases at once, exclude others, choose which language you get results in, which types of sites to display, and much, much more. There are so many ways to personalize your search that it can be overwhelming. Have a play around with it and see what you come up with. You can find the Advanced Search feature under "tools," or you can just click here.

·       Boolean operators - They used to teach these in school, but now not so much. These are just things that you type into search engines to tell them what to do. The most common are quotation marks, which tells search engines only to return results that include an exact match of the keyword you've entered. Without them, they will find stuff that includes those terms in the document, no matter if they're next to one another or not. The most common operator is "and," which you use to separate two different groups of search terms and get more specific results. For example, you could search "French Revolution" and "American Revolution" to see all the pages that include exact matches for both terms. The other most common operator is "or," which you use in the same way as "and," but to widen your search results. Using it will return results that include an exact match of either search term. 

These tools are all really handy, but always remember that search engines aren't perfect. The more specific your topic, the more you will need to tinker with things to find good sources that will support your research project.

Other Search Engines

Although the results will often be similar, it couldn't hurt to take a look at what comes up on other search engines, such as Bing, Yahoo!, or DuckDuckGo. Most of us go straight for Google, and there's a good reason for this, but a good researcher leaves no stone unturned, so take a look at what the others have to offer.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is a wonderful tool that will help you search only what are considered "academic" sources, meaning books, and scholarly articles. Most of these sources can be found through your school, but since Google runs this search tool, it tends to work a lot better, and it's easy to use.

However, Google shows you all of what's out there, so depending on where something is stored, i.e., which catalog it belongs to, access could be limited. If you're associated with a school, this shouldn't matter. If you're not, you can usually preview stuff on Google Scholar, which will give you an idea if it's worth investing in full access to the source

The Library

The library? What's that!?

Yes, it's true that most people don't use the library the way they used to, but when you're doing a research project, you should take at least one trip. First off, librarians are trained to do research. That's right. They don't just scan books and put them back on shelves. A quick discussion with them could point you to some sources or other resources, such as online catalogs, you hadn't thought of that will make it much easier for you to find valuable resources for your project.

Searching through the library's catalog will also point you to what books are out there about your subject, as well as any films/documentaries that might be relevant. Many libraries also rent out digital resources, which is great if what you seek is in high demand.

Another thing to look for at libraries is research guides. These are lists of sources and other resources you can use to find information about a specific topic. If you're a college student, there's a really good chance your library already has these, and you should be able to find them on the library's website. Take a look, as these often point you right where you need to go to find sources for your project.

Academic Databases

If you're a university student, perhaps the best resource available to you when doing research online is the academic databases your school subscribes to. These tools are massive collections of scholarly work that you can easily search based on topic. Most of the content comes from the many academic publications that are out there that often publish the most cutting-edge research about a wide variety of topics.

The most well-known databases are JSTOR, Science Direct, Academic OneFile, and LexusNexus, but there are many more. These databases are expensive to subscribe to, but universities are basically required to do so. This means that decades worth of high-quality scholarly research is available at your fingertips, and all you need to do is search for it.

If you're not sure how to access these databases, speak with a professor or library employee. Once you figure it out, your research life will never be the same.

Should you use Wikipedia?

One common question people ask when they're doing research online is: Should I use Wikipedia?

The simple answer is "no," but, as usual, things aren't always simple. When we say no, what we mean is that you should never source Wikipedia directly. It's come a long way over the years and is much more authoritative than it used to be, but it's still an open-sourced software. It can be unreliable, but because it's often written quite well, it's easy to overlook errors. Including these mistakes in your research, though, can look bad.

You can use Wikipedia, however, to help familiarize yourself with a topic. It's often a good place to start your research so that you can get a broad idea of what you're dealing with. It can help you narrow down some of the specific subtopics you want to research further.

Another way to use Wikipedia is to follow the sources it uses for its articles. All claims made on Wikipedia should be cited with a link. Using these can lead you to some quality source material that you can read on your own and incorporate into your research as you see fit.

How to Conduct Good Research

With a strong understanding of what sources are out there, what makes a good one, and how to find quality stuff, it's time for the hard part: sitting down and researching. This will take time, and there's no way to get around that. You will need to do lots of reading, lots of note-taking, and you will likely look at a lot of stuff that doesn't end up in your final project. That's okay. It's all part of the process.

However, to help make things go a bit smoother, here are a few tips on how to conduct good research:

Where To Do Your Research

1. Establish a Good Research Environment

Start your researching off on the right foot by giving yourself a good place to work. Choose somewhere that is quiet and free from distractions (such as...the library!) and set up your workspace to help you succeed. Maybe use a second monitor so that you can look at more than one thing at a time. Use a table that gives you plenty of space to spread out so that you can have multiple books and other printouts within reach at all times.

2. Start with an Overview

One good way to start your research is to get an overview. The first round of your research should just be consuming. Read a few summary articles or watch a film. Take some notes, but don't overdo it. This will help you understand the topic more broadly, and you can use this to help you choose where you're going to be focusing more closely. If you're already familiar with the topic, you can skip this step, but it's usually a good place to start for most people.

3. Use Your Sources to Find More Sources

Don't make your life too difficult. If you're reading a book about a topic and are finding it useful, consider looking into the sources that person used to write the book. They can usually be found either at the bottom of the page (if the person is using footnotes) at the end of the chapter or at the end of the book.

The more specific the topic, the more narrow the range of sources, so doing this will help you identify key voices and will make it much easier for you to keep researching. This is also a great way to find primary sources.

Furthermore, this also helps you verify your sources. Seeing what information these people used to make their claims will help you determine the validity of their research. You can then decide if it's something you want to include in your work. 

4. Diversify the Sources You Use

Don't get all your research from one place. If you do, then your work ceases to become research and is really just a summary. It will make it weaker in general and will probably result in a lower grade. Instead, use a wide range of sources from as many different people/places as possible. There's no set limit, and using more isn't always better, but do make sure your information is diverse.

Another thing to consider is varying the medium of your source. A healthy mix of print and web materials is usually a good thing, even if the print sources were accessed electronically. Although the internet has come a long way, print materials are still considered more trustworthy, but information on the web tends to be more current. As a result, balance the two, and your research will be that much better.

5. Look for Counterarguments

After you've done a good bit of research and have a good feeling about what you want to say in your project, it's time to take a pause and assume the role of devil's advocate. Try to figure out what people might say to combat whatever argument/claim you are trying to make, and then do some research into the positions these people might take. Then, do a bit more research so that you can more confidently say why your argument is still valid. This makes your work so much more professional and reliable, yet it's something most people don't do.

Taking this step also makes it easier for you to avoid confirmation bias, which occurs when you only seek out sources that align with your point of view. It's easy to do this, but if you take a second to consider and research counter arguments, you can prevent this from happening and produce much better work.

6. Take Good Notes

Lastly, while you're researching, it's crucial you take really good notes. When you come across something relevant, write it down and include which source you got it from and a page number as well. This will make it much easier for you to track down what you found later on and include it in your work.

As your project progresses, you will probably want to start organizing your notes, so that like topics are grouped together. You can do this the old-fashioned way by just using pen and paper, or you can use one of the many note-taking apps out there, such as Evernote, Apple Notes, or Microsoft OneNote.

Citing Your Research

Perhaps just as important as everything you've done up until this point is citing your work. Failure to do so is not only unprofessional but also illegal, and the higher you get in the education system, the less lenient people will be about plagiarism. In many colleges, a first offense earns you a "zero" on the project, which essentially guarantees you'll need to fight to pass. Some places are even stricter and fail you right away.

No matter the exact consequences, it's something you want to avoid, so make sure you're doing this right. Here are some tips:

Choose a Style

If your school or teacher hasn't already specified, then the first thing you need to do is decide on a style. The three most common are MLA, APA, and Chicago. The first two are quite similar in that they use parenthetical citations. MLA includes page numbers, whereas APA uses dates. So, citing a book from John Doe in MLA would like this in text - (Doe, 34) - suggesting it came from page 34. In APA, it would look like this: (Doe, 2000, p. 34). Note how the date is included. There are other nuances, but this is one of the major differences.

Chicago is different in that it uses footnotes and endnotes. Footnotes go at the bottom of the page, whereas endnotes go either at the end of the chapter/section or at the end of the work. Many people like Chicago style better because it looks a bit cleaner when you read. No parentheses interrupting the text but rather superscript numbers like this one1.

Unless instructed to use a specific style, it doesn't matter which one you use, but the most important thing is to be consistent. Only use one style for your work. Mixing and matching is not only unprofessional, but it can also call into question the authenticity of your work.

Use Tools to Help You

Citing your work accurately can be messy and time-consuming, but it doesn't need to be. There are a few online tools that make it easy to cite correctly, such as:

·        Citation Machine - All you need to do is choose your style and fill in the boxes with the relevant information. The tool will then generate a perfectly formatted citation that you can copy into your work.

·        Mendeley - This is a tool you can download that is also super useful for helping you organize your work. You can sort resources into different folders, make notes and highlight directly on your digital sources, and automatically generate citations in several different styles. This is great for large research projects that have lots of different sources.

·        Google Scholar - When you find something on Google Scholar, look at the last line of the search result. You will see a button that says, "cite." Click it, and then you can copy citations in one of several formats. It's accurate and done in seconds.

When in Doubt, Cite

One thing new researchers often question is when they should cite something. The obvious times are when you are directly quoting someone or including a fact or statistic that you couldn't possibly know on your own.

But one thing many people forget is that you need to provide a citation when you paraphrase - summarize - someone else's work. So, if you read a chapter on a topic and then condense the main argument down to a paragraph and put it in your work, you need to give that person credit for those ideas. If you don't, that's plagiarism.

The only things you don't cite are ideas and claims that are 100 percent yours. Everything else needs a reference, which is why we advocate for "when in doubt, cite." It's generally better to be accused of over-citing, which carries no real consequences, than under-citing, which can lead to plagiarism charges and lots of problems down the road.

Let's Get to Work

As you can see, doing proper research online takes work. Sure, the internet makes things easier, but doing good research is hard work. Hopefully, you now know all the tips and tricks that are out there that will not only make it easier to research your topic but that will also allow you to come up with something that is truly high-quality and representative of all time you've put in.