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Research Help: Using the Internet for Academic Research

Using the Internet for Academic Research

This guide assumes a basic familiarity with using the Internet. For assistance researching specific topics, please contact a Librarian at the Library Research Help Desk, at 364-2564, or by e-mail: infodesk@mta.ca or contact the Subject Librarian for your topic directly.

Things You Should Know:

  • Not everything is available on the Internet. There may be little or no relevant information on your topic. What is available may not be as appropriate as the information in other sources. The Internet is only one of the research tools and provides access to only some of the many sources of information available to you.
     
  • Research on the Internet will take time. All research does.
     
  • Information on the Internet is not stable. At any time, information may be moved, altered, or deleted. This is a major problem when it comes to using an Internet source for academic research. Your professor may not accept Internet sources; check with your professor in advance. See "Using & Citing Internet Sources" below for manuals that provide guidelines for citing Internet sources in footnotes and bibliographies.
     
  • Not everything on the Internet is accurate, true, current, or reliable. See "Evaluating What You Find" below.


Finding Information:

There are two major ways to begin a search on a research topic: by subject or keyword.

Searching by Subject:
Use an academic subject directory. These are sites organized by librarians or other academics providing a collection of links to sites that are appropriate for academic research.

  • The Mount Allison Libraries web site has links to information for the subjects taught at Mount Allison University. Select Subject Guides, then a subject. A list of larger, more comprehensive subject directories is also available under the Quick Link: "Online Reference Sources & Quick Facts". Select Internet Search Engines & Directories.

Searching by Keyword:
A keyword search may be more appropriate for a very specific topic. Use Internet search engines to do a keyword search. A selection of search engines is available from the library web page Online Reference Sources & Quick Facts. Select Internet Search Engines & Directories.

Things to keep in mind about keyword searching: Keyword searching is not the same as subject searching! There is no standard or controlled vocabulary yet for finding information on the Internet. This means you will have to think of synonyms, variants in spelling, different word endings, etc.

Google (http://www.google.com) is currently one of the best Internet search engines. It displays the search term in context and has an excellent results ranking system. Google has "Basic" and "Advanced" search modes. Here are some tips for doing "Basic" Internet searches using Google:

  • Phrase searching: Use quotation marks for words that should be found together in that order.

(e.g. "electoral reform")

  • Multiple terms: Boolean "and" is stated as the automatic default, so entering two or more words should retrieve pages

containing all of the terms you enter.
(e.g. elections reform) However, if not all terms are found, results will display without them. To force retrieval of results for all keywords, enter each word with a plus sign (+) directly before it. (e.g. +elections +reform)

  • Narrowing a search: Enter more search terms to specify

more clearly what you want to find.
(e.g. elections reform canada)

  • Broadening a search: Use "OR" to search for alternative terms at the same time.

(e.g. "election reform" OR "electoral reform")
NOTE: truncation is not available on Google.

Advanced Searching: See the Google Advanced Search page for more ways to search efficiently. Consider also using other search engines. Selected subject-specific search engines may be listed in the Library Subject Guides.

Evaluating What You Find:

It is important to evaluate the information you intend to use for a research paper. This applies to printed books and articles found in a library, but even more so for information found on the Internet. Quality in print resources is often assured by editors and publishers who pay the costs of publishing, and by libraries that select the best. On the Internet, anyone can put up a web page at any time, with no control. Some web sites have strict editorial policies; some have none at all. A basic keyword search on a search engine will find them all, so you will have to know how to determine which are appropriate.

Things to look for when evaluating information on the Internet:

  • Author(s), could be a person or an organization:

Who are they? What is their background or expertise? Why should they be trusted to know about the field? Are they affiliated with an institution or university? What are their credentials? What is their bias or point of view? etc.

  • Date:

Most, if not all, information is only relevant in a context of time; if no date is given, the information should be suspect. There may be an original creation date and a date for when the information was last modified. Each document should have a date; the date given on a web site's home page may not be applicable to each document within it.

  • Host site or "Publisher":

Web addresses often indicate the country of origin (e.g. .ca = canada, .fr = france), or the type of organization hosting the web site. (e.g. .edu=educational (US), .com=commercial, .gov=governmental (US), .org=organization) You may have to back up to the home page to find out more about the web site on which a document is found and who is responsible for it. If the information at the site is not original, make sure the original source is given, and is cited properly.

  • Type of Information:

Many different kinds of information resources can be found on the Internet, from peer-reviewed journal articles and books, government documents, professional working papers, and student essays, to personal letters, fiction, and spoofs of serious research. In print these are usually easy to distinguish; on the Internet they may not be. A screen of text from any of these will look much the same.

  • Purpose:

Commercial uses of the Internet are growing faster than any other, so much of the "information" on the web is advertising. The Internet is also a very effective propaganda tool; be aware of the purpose of the site, and of the document, you are viewing. Check all the "meta-data" available, ie. all the clues you can find that put the information in context or provide details about it.

More tips on evaluating Internet sites:

Mount Allison University Libraries Guide to Evaluating Web Sources
a short and useful guide to the major points to consider

Five Criteria for Evaluating Web Pages. http://www.library.cornell.edu/okuref/research/webcrit.html
a chart showing five major evaluation criteria and related points

Evaluation of Information Sources.
http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~agsmith/evaln/evaln.htm
a large collection of links to other sites on evaluating Internet resources

Retrieving the Results of a Search:

When you have determined that an Internet source is appropriate to use in your research, you can take notes, print, download, cut and paste to your word processing file, or e-mail the information to yourself. Whichever method you use, make sure that the source URL appears in full on the document you are retrieving. It is a good idea to check the style guides below BEFORE starting your research, so that you know what information to include in your footnotes or bibliography for all sources you retrieve from the Internet.

Using and Citing Internet Sources:

All information on the Internet is protected by copyright unless specifically stated otherwise. Do not plagiarize; be sure to cite all information used for your paper. The standard citation manuals include instructions on how to cite electronic resources in the body of your paper and in the bibliography. The related web sites have selected examples.

MLA style (humanities):

Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 7th ed. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009. (In library: LB 2369 .G53 2009 Reference)

MLA Homepage FAQs:
http://www.mla.org/style_faq1

APA style (sciences):

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC : American Psychological Association, 2010. (In library: BF 76.7 .P83 2010 Reference)

APA DOI and URL Flowchart:
http://blog.apastyle.org/files/doi-and-url-flowchart-8.pdf

APA Style Help:
http://www.apastyle.org/apa-style-help.aspx

For more information and guides to the MLA and APA Styles, please see the Citation Guides & Bibliographic Tools page.

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Last updated October 3, 2012 by Anita Cannon