With the information age has come the attitude of "if you can think of it, you can find it on the Internet." It's difficult to argue the sentiment when you can find out interesting facts such as who has the longest hair in the world, how fast the Earth rotates around its axis, or how much India's population grew in 2008.
Is It Online?
Though it may be the easiest place to begin researching, there are times when the Internet doesn't hold the answer. If you need complete details of the history of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the country of Georgia, you may have to visit a major library. If you need to know how people in your community have been affected by a new city ordinance, very little information may exist at all on the Internet or in print. You may be forced to conduct your own primary research.
So when is the Internet useful for conducting research? It depends on what kind of information you're looking for and how much information you need. If you're studying ancient Greek texts, you will probably have to arrange to view the documents at a university or academic center. (Some forward-thinking universities like Duke have created an Internet archive of its ancient texts for casual reference.) But if you need weather statistics or encyclopedic knowledge, a growing number of primary sources exist online.
Now you may be wondering what a primary source is. Material from a primary source is material that is closely related to the topic being studied. It's typically a document, person, or artifact that acts as the origin of information and discussion. Primary sources are extremely important to research, though secondary sources also have their uses. Errors in primary source material can be corrected by a secondary source through the process of peer review.
Many tools exist on the Internet to help you discover primary and secondary sources of information. The first thing to ask is "what kind of information do I need?" This will help narrow down where you should look. If you're looking for up-to-date research in the fields of industry and academia, consider looking for online academic and trade journals. If you need census data, government websites may be your best bet.
If scientific and scholarly journals are needed, you have several options. The most accessible option is the open access journal. You can find over 4,700 of them through theDirectory of Open Access Journals. At a time when finding scholarly information on the Internet is difficult, the site strongly promotes increased adoption and visibility of these types of journals.
JSTOR is another option for academic and scholarly journals. However, the service is limited to those fortunate enough to have access to a library, school, or university that subscribes to the service. While searches using Google Scholar do reveal many JSTOR articles, those articles are essentially useless without direct access.
Another useful tool is the Web directory. A Web directory differs from a search engine in that it acts solely as an index or catalogue of sites sorted by theme. One of the more well-known Web directories is the Open Directory Project. Loosely affiliated with the Mozilla project, the directory is edited by a volunteer community dedicated to keeping it as current as possible. The directory has a wide variety of subjects to browse through. For example, if you're looking for information about diseases that affect trees, you can browse through the categories of "Science", then "Agriculture", and then "Forestry" to discover Kansas State University's information about iron chlorosis in trees.
Search engines also play an important role in any hunt for information. Often the source of a particular piece of information isn't obvious, requiring a search of the Internet. Sites like Google and Bing provide tools that allow you to fine tune your searches, narrowing down your results by file type, language, date, location, and more. Of course, getting the best results from a search engine requires advanced search techniques.
Getting the best search engine results often requires very sophisticated techniques. For tips, read our article Advanced Web Searching article.
Yet there are places that search engines don't even go, leaving a lot of information absent from the typical search engine result. This place is called the invisible or deep Web and is host to millions of pages of content. But there are tools to access much of this information. Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) suggest numerous resources you can use to search the deep Web, allowing you to target magazine articles, journals, and databases with valuable information. The OWL also offers three very useful suggestions for finding online books and texts, many of them can be downloaded for free.
The process of researching online is in many ways the same as the offline realm. There are a few extra considerations to be made, however, when dealing with the vast expanses of the Internet.
Determine what kind of information you want to find and where you're most likely to find it. If you don't know where to find it, you can always fall back on other search tools.
Identify three or more important keywords relevant to your search beforehand. These keywords should guide your research from start to finish.
Maintain a log of sites you visited for anything but the shortest research excursion. It's easy to lose track of what sites you have and haven't been to. Logging the URL and a brief description of the information is additionally handy for documentation of sourcing. It's also extremely handy when you find intriguing information that isn't directly related to your research. The easiest way to keep a log is to create a Word document or spreadsheet and save information to it as you progress.
Verify if the source of a piece of information is primary. The mention of a statistic in a news article is usually secondary, requiring a search for the primary source.
Consider reviewing more traditional print sources, especially when dealing with local or obscure subjects.
There's no doubt that researching from your desktop is more convenient than roaming through remote corners of a library. For the kind of information you may need in your daily life, you can't beat the Internet for speed and efficiency. Knowing the tools and techniques makes the process easier and more reputable.
When dealing with purely academic research though, the Net is still a supplementary tool. To many teachers, professors, and professionals, Internet sources don't have equal value to books, reports, and other offline material. But responsible Internet research based on primary sources is seeing broader adoption. Knowing the tools and techniques makes the process easier and more reputable.