How to Use the Internet as a Reliable Research Tool

Online Research

(Photo Credit: Exponential Programs)

Postmodern college students have a research tool not available to students decades ago: the Internet. While the Internet is a boundless source of useful information, it is also littered with less than reliable sources. Another issue many college students face is figuring out how to do in-depth, college-level research, according to Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL’s online survey of nearly 2,000 college and high school students found that Google was the research tool of choice for nearly 90% of students. While Google can be a beneficial tool, it shouldn’t be your only option for research at the college level. This piece offers some tips about how to use the Internet in more useful ways to conduct research.

Explore Databases

Your high school librarian might have shown you how to access a research database from a workstation in the library.  Once you get to college, the number of online databases available to you increases exponentially.  PIL’s study found that college students today have 19 times more databases available to them than their high school counterparts.  Locate higher education institutions near you along with online resources associated with those institutions.

It’s important to know what database to employ to obtain information that’s actually relevant to your project.  Temple University’s Research Guide recommends that instructors suggest specific databases to use, noting that a 2010 PIL survey revealed that only about 14% of college handouts recommend specific databases.  If your assignment fails to specify, it never hurts to ask your instructor.

Review Individual Sites

The Internet grows larger every minute.  Not only is more information available online every minute, college students can get home internet access for less money than in the past.  A 2012 infographic from Domo divulges that nearly 600 new websites pop up online every minute.  As a student doing research for a credible academic paper, it’s your job to sift through websites to find the ones that provide information that’s accurate.

Luckily, myriad websites give clues as to whether or not you can trust them to offer reliable information. One way to judge the reliability of a website is to look at its domain or URL.  If you’re tracking down health statistics from a government agency, for example, a site that ends in .gov, such as CDC.gov or FDA.gov is going to provide you with accurate information from the actual Centers for Disease Control or Food and Drug Administration.  A website such as CDC.com or FDA.com isn’t necessarily connected to the federal agencies.

You can also discover more about the person who penned the article on the site.  Typically, a credible author will be an expert in his or her field, such as a doctor or a professor.  The article should ideally cite sources and direct you to those sources so that you can verify the information or learn more.

Connect with Your School’s Library

Although the Internet is full of information, there are other resources.  Print books and journals are still excellent sources when writing a paper or working on a project.  You don’t have to trudge to your campus library to track down the books you’re looking for, though.

You can locate books that might be relevant using your school library’s online card catalog.  Some schools let you put the books on hold or check them out online, and then pick them up the next time you’re on campus.  You can also download e-books from the digital collections at some campus libraries, meaning you don’t even have to pick up the books in person.

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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