How to Conduct Research Online

Electronic resources abound, and they can be of very high quality. The best way to find peer-reviewed, high-quality journal articles is to access them through your online library, or to purchase the articles through an article provider.

However, there are excellent sources that are both accurate and of high quality on the Web, and they are often free and not password protected.

Whether you are looking for journal articles, monographs, factual information, or high-quality publicly available resources, the same principles apply. Narrow your topic, make sure your search terms are relevant and focused, make sure your articles and your topic are in alignment, examine your sources for bias and distortion, and finally, make sure that your research provides sufficient support and background for your argument.

Let's expand the steps and look at them again. It is useful to look at each of the stages individually and to think about how and why you will be engaged in activities.

Define your topic.

Narrow it down, but don't constrain it too much. Develop a solid thesis statement that gives you room to develop an argument. This is a great time to do brainstorming. Clusters, mind maps, concept maps, decision trees, and free-writing are all very effective.

Determine what fields of study your research question will address.

Identifying the fields of study will help you determine which journals and subject or field-specific databases to search.

Make a list of items that interest you about the topic.

For example, you may be required to write an essay on an aspect of Hamlet in your English class. At first, you feel overwhelmed. Later, however, you think about the characters and situations that most interested you and you recall that Ophelia's speech and then her subsequent death were interesting to you. You wondered about the psychological state, and how she was perceived by the others in the play. Does her situation illustrate something essential about the human condition? You don't have any idea, but you'd like to explore it. So, you start by looking into what others have said about Ophelia in Hamlet. You find that her madness and death reflect and reinforce the overall themes of death, madness, murder, and betrayal. How does Ophelia's madness contrast with Hamlet's? You start jotting down ideas and key words. These will help you develop search terms and to focus your search by going to the correct types of journals and publications.

Narrow your topic.

This requires another round of brainstorming, but this time you will be focusing on what others have written. List terms, ideas, and concepts that occur to you, and then focus on the subcategories that you find most interesting.

Then, use the list to narrow your topic. Avoid worn-out subjects and ones that are too narrow or too broad.

What have others said?

As you conduct preliminary research in the library, you will find books and articles on your topic. As you read the material, try to form an idea of what the major issues have been in the discussions about your topic.

For example, if your topic is on how stem cells could treat Lou Gehrig's Disease, you will need to have an idea of who the first people who started researching the topic. You will also need to identify the sides of the argument. Who is for it? Who is against it? Why? What are the issues?

Once you have a sense of the main players, you can start to do searches based on author name as well as key words or topics.

Ironically, in some cases, you may even have to be aware that the site may not have the original version of the information you're citing. They may, in actuality, be borrowing from another site. This is particularly the case with Web sites and services that subscribe to Weblogs or where the information is mirrored because they have chosen to pull the entire article in the feed.

Evaluate your material.

How do you determine if a source of information is of high quality? Even if you are obtaining your data from a library database such as Lexis-Nexis, you should be aware that the articles contained in the newspapers they have in their database could be biased.

If it has advertising or links indicating that the owner is a member of an affiliate program on it, does such activity automatically make the site untrustworthy? In the past, it might have been an automatic disqualifier to see links to advertising, sponsors, or affiliate programs that pay the Website owner a few cents for referrals. However, one can not make such assumptions now. In fact, the presence of affiliate links may indicate that the Website is a labor of love, and that there are no ideological or commercial ties. Further, the lack of commercial ties may actually be a negative factor because it may mean that the enterprise is so profitable, or the ideological motivations are so strong that there are numerous well-endowed backers, or a highly successful business model.

Here are a few considerations as you evaluate your sources.

  1. Refereed journals. This is an academic journal that requires all articles to be reviewed by experts in the field. They require revisions and will reject articles if they do not meet standards.
  2. Books and serial monographs. In this case, it depends on the publisher and whether or not they evaluate, judge, and critique the material to assure that only the most reliable are published.
  3. Series sponsored by an association or reputable group. These are very common in the humanities, particularly in the hosting of content in the public domain.
  4. Wikis and collaborations. Variable quality. They can be extremely good and reliable, but the quality, quantity, depth, and breadth will be variable, as will be the scope of the contributions. There can be bias, distortion, or gaps (lacunae) in information.
  5. Weblogs and personal/corporate Web sites. Some are absolutely brilliant. Others are dismal. One can use the information, but it must be approached with care and extreme caution.
  6. Term paper repositories. Needless to say, we have not mentioned termpapers.com and other places that will sell you a term paper, or will allow you to share term papers with others. These are not the only unreliable sources of information in the Internet. It goes without saying that you should not use these, unless you're just determined to commit academic misconduct. You could cite them correctly, but they probably aren't the best source, unless your paper is about the traffic in term papers online.
  7. Summaries, overviews, and study guides. I, like everyone else, love Pink Monkey. However, I would think twice before actually citing it in a paper. I think that the best way to use Pink Monkey, Cliff Notes, Wikipedia, etc. is as a point of departure. Use them to gain an appreciation of your subject and to orient yourself. However, the information can be very imprecise and inaccurate, particularly in their plot summaries. They leave out details and discussion points that may be precisely the ones that you need.
  8. Student postings, peer-to-peer downloads of notes, texts, etc. These are excellent if you're interested in seeing how students write papers, and they can serve either as guides or as cautionary tales.
  9. Parody Web sites. Believe it or not, some students have actually cited information from parody sites as fact! The Onion.com comes to mind. This is a site that masquerades as a legitimate news site, but is, in fact, pure parody. How can you tell if a site is a parody, or so biased that the information it contains is unusable? Compare the information with others. Does it seem outlandish or extremely biased? Look at least three or four sites.

Organize your sources, articles, and notes.

After you have found your articles, be sure to organize them so that you have a sense of where they will go in your paper. Keep your primary thesis in mind, and the points you are trying to make and will support with evidence and research findings from your articles.

This is a good time to return to your outline and to start mapping out where you plan to use your sources and citations.

Create an annotated bibliography.

As you download and read your articles, you can keep track of them by creating an "electronic notebook" which would consist of a citation of your sources. Create an entry for each source. Use the appropriate style (MLA, APA, CBE, Chicago, etc.). After you have completed that, be sure to write a one-sentence overview/summary of the article and how it relates to your topic.

If you're unsure how to cite references check out our guide on How to Avoid Plagiarism.

Update your outline.

Re-examine your thesis. Look at your argumentation structure. Does each paragraph and subsection help support your thesis? How does your research fit? Determine where you have gaps, redundancies, or where your sources take you on a tangent.

Fill in the gaps.

Make a list of the places in your paper where you need additional support for your argument. Then, after eliminating redundancies, map where you need to fill gaps, and where your argument needs additional support.

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